Reimagining the Gendered Workplace Post-COVID: It’s Time for a Redo

It is time to change the narrative of women and men in the workforce as having separate, unequal goals.

Women are paid 83 cents to the dollar that men are paid for the same work, and women of color paid much less than white women. (Pixabay)

Two years into the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic and the resulting Great Resignation turned Great Reshuffle turned Great Resurgence, it is time for the Great Redo. The shifting of priorities and necessities of hybrid work imposed by COVID-19 since March 2020, have opened up the possibility to create more fair work cultures in the U.S. and across the world.

Reimagining attitudes and policies amenable to family and elder care, mental health needs and schedule flexibility framed not only as a woman’s responsibility, is an urgent priority. The global workforce population can never go back to the way it was. The pandemic has offered everyone the opportunity to reset norms and rebalance to fairness.

As Microsoft’s latest Worker Trend Index, “Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work,” surveying  31,000 employees in 31 countries reports:

“47 percent of respondents say they are more likely to put family and personal life over work than they were before the pandemic. In addition, 53 percent—particularly parents (55 percent) and women (56 percent)—say they’re more likely to prioritize their health and wellbeing over work than before.”

That is as 18 percent of those surveyed left their jobs in 2021. Microsoft “reports the top five reasons employees quit were: personal wellbeing or mental health (24 percent), work-life balance (24 percent), risk of getting COVID-19 (21 percent), lack of confidence in senior management/leadership (21 percent), and lack of flexible work hours or location (21 percent).”  

Clearly these are issues that affect all genders and identities. So addressing the misperceptions that these are concerns for women more often or women alone is necessary. Attitudes toward the relegation and accountability of work both in and outside of the workplace need modernizing to meet post-pandemic realities.

Certainly, COVID widened the gender gap in the workforce and was the cause for 12.2 million women to lose their jobs from January to April 2020, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Women have regained more than 10 million lost jobs, as they are now down over 1.4 million jobs since February 2020.

There has been a rebounding of jobs most every month since January 2020, with the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showing an increase in 678,000 jobs in February 2022, with the jobless rate for men holding at 3.5 percent and women at 3.9 percent.

Also encouraging is that the employment ratio for women over 20 years old is 55.9 percent of the population, compared to 53.9 percent a year ago, the BLS reports. For men, the employment rate is still higher, at 68.1 percent of the population in February 2022, compared to the same month a year ago.

Still, inequity remains. The recent Equal Pay Day highlighted the reality that all women are paid 83 cents to the dollar that men are paid for the same work, and women of color paid much less than white women. That injustice is historic and ongoing, but can narrow to equity in the Great Resurgence with deliberate and intentional action.

One tool for equal pay is not relying on salary history, as history consistently shows women are underpaid. President Joe Biden’s recent executive order is a step in that direction as the order prohibits “federal contractors and subcontractors from using salary history to set pay or make employment decisions.”

“Women—and especially women of color—have been shortchanged for too long,” said Emily Martin, NWLC vice president for education and workplace justice. “Pay discrimination shouldn’t be able to follow you from job to job through your career—but too often that’s exactly what happens when pay at a new job is based on your salary history.”

Progress for fairness must continue. We have come too far to continue adhering to the narrative of the workplace as a gendered zone, where women are not only paid less, but only women and mothers request and are penalized for requesting flexible work accommodations.

As policies change, perceptions and attitudes of gender bias in the workplace need to shift as well.

A new study, the Human Workplace Index from Work Human, reports that 48 percent of men say women are given more acknowledgment at work, while 68 percent of men say men and women are paid the same.

As the study shows, 46 percent of women believe they are acknowledged less, and 31 percent of women surveyed say they are promoted less. Almost half, or 49 percent of women say they are paid the same as men.

The realities of the pandemic have shifted everyone’s daily life, not just in the workplace, but in all of their lives. Millions grapple with grief and loss as well as physical and mental health challenges brought on by COVID-19. These are impossible to ignore or diminish.

It is also impossible to maintain the status quo in how leaders and workers have defined work in terms of gender identities. Everyone plays an equal part in the Great Redo for a more fair and better future.

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Rita Kakati-Shah is the founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform for women and minorities in leadership, and author of The Goddess of Go-Getting: Your Guide to Confidence, Leadership, and Workplace Success.