COVID-19: Inducing change in the employee benefit provisions/policies for women workforce
For Anita*, the days have blurred into the same repetitive routine. From the crack of dawn, she is constantly confronted with multiple priorities to address: running the household, managing her daughter’s virtual schooling, caring for her elderly mother, and in the middle of this, managing her job. To her, working from home has become a double-edged sword; on the one hand, she has the time to spend taking care of the family; on the other, she has fewer sources of support (no nanny, daycare, or household staff) to help her with this.
Seema’s* situation is different from Anita’s but equally stressful – she and her husband both work and are used to working long hours. Their parents live in different cities and it’s been a while since they made a visit. With the pandemic, Seema felt an unspoken pressure to push herself more – to appear to be “always available”, to take on more responsibilities, and so on. An unintended consequence of this was that her ability to draw lines between work and personal life have blurred, and she worries about how she may come across to her employers if she now starts pushing back.
The pandemic has impacted all of us; however, the stressors are unique.
The price to pay for “work from home”
In the organizational ecosystem, this pandemic has had a significant impact on its several stakeholders; and one of the most impacted demographic groups is women. For many working women, it has shaken up their work-life balance and is affecting their physical and mental health, and some are even questioning their long-term career prospects. Deloitte Global’s survey (undertaken by Forbes Insights) covering nearly 400 working women across nine leading economies, found that nearly 82% of women surveyed believed that their lives have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Why, you may ask? The circumstances in which women are working and living have changed manifold since the onset of the pandemic. COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the daily lives of women; 65% of them have more responsibility for household chores now, than earlier. These extra demands from work and home come at a heavy price.
A common problem which needs a custom solution
The issue of women being affected emerged only down the line into the pandemic. Organizations gingerly floated policies providing “flexibility at work”. This “flexibility” is usually understood as “Work from Home”, which almost all organizations were able to provide during this time. However, we found a few companies adopting more holistic and relevant plans. Among those were companies who allowed flexibility in the number of work hours to their staff so that the employee could choose what would work for them. Companies invested time in educating the leaders and the wider organization via conversations, extensive communication programs, and a rigorous promotion of these policies. Some other companies have offered flexibility of roles, allowing employees to choose roles that fit their personal situations and priorities.
Mentorship and sponsorship have emerged as a strong offering by companies to their employees, particularly to women. The purpose of such a forum is to help women access networking opportunities, while learning from each other and providing mutual support.
Inclusive practices are the way of the future
In all this, the key aspect companies have had to deal with are the underlying cultural constructs that judge anyone taking up these options. Women have confided that they are considered to be on an inferior career track should they take up the benefits of flexibility for example. Companies have used two strong strategies for this. First, leaders have established Diversity and Inclusion policies as non-negotiable, letting everyone know that addressing gender inclusion is a shared responsibility. The second strategy has been in uncovering and highlighting the unconscious bias that emerges in every aspect of an employee life cycle. For example, sometimes certain performance management systems are biased as it rewards people on the perception of performance rather than on concrete evidence of performance. Women have benefited from the systemic review of all HR systems that identify and eliminate these biases. Strong educational programs are needed for the leaders in understanding their own unconscious biases.
Employers need to make a concentrated effort to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on this demographic, or we risk rolling back the progress made on gender diversity. The focus on this will also help in minimising the long-term societal and economic consequences that this pandemic has had on women.