The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about the way we work, with thousands of employees spending the last year adjusting to working from home full time. 

While the move to remote work has shown many people a new path forward in their careers, there’s a risk of it reinforcing the ever-present glass ceiling.

A study from Qualtrics found that 57% of men believe that working from home has had a positive effect on their careers, while only 29% of women agree. What’s more, research institute McKinsey has stated that COVID-19 could “set women back half a decade.”

But what has brought us to this point? This article will explore how the pandemic has exacerbated the gender gap, and what employers can do to try and combat its effects.

How has the pandemic affected women’s working lives?

There are very few people in the world who can claim to not have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but several studies show that it’s had massive (and potentially long-lasting) ramifications for women and their careers. 

For starters, female employees were more likely to be laid off or furloughed from their jobs than male employees — this can be traced to the fact that women often hold more entry-level or service-based roles in which social distancing is difficult. McKinsey estimates that across the world, female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male rates. In the U.S. alone, all of the 140,000 jobs lost in December 2020 belonged to women.

Female employees who were able to continue to work from home faced challenges of their own, often having to take up extra childcare and home duties alongside working remotely. Globally, women took on 173 additional hours of unpaid childcare during 2020, compared to 59 hours for men. This may point to why 77% of men with children at home believe they’re more productive working remotely, while only 46% of working mothers say the same.

And it doesn’t end there. More often than not, women had no fixed space to work remotely  — a US survey found that men were twice as likely to have an office at home, with women mainly holding Zoom calls and making presentations from a shared space, like the kitchen table.

When you add it all up, it’s not surprising that many women are emerging from the pandemic with questions about their careers. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study, by the end of 2020, one in four women were contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on female employees — but what does that mean for the future of women in the workforce?

The future of women in the workforce post-COVID

As we enter the second half of 2021, lockdowns are lifting, vaccination rates are climbing, and businesses are starting to return to the office. Employees now face three possible options: return to the office full-time, work from home permanently, or combine the two in a hybrid model.

While this unprecedented choice in how we structure our working lives will benefit many, it could also impact the gender diversity of the office. According to a recent UK-based survey, 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week, compared to 56% of fathers. If more men choose to go back to work in person, we may just see a return to the male-dominated offices of the past.

On paper, this doesn’t spell disaster for female workers, but career advancement has long been associated with being “present” at the office. Taking the so-called “mommy track” and prioritizing their home lives already puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to leadership and career opportunities. If female employees are no longer putting in face time at their desks, will the paths to their progression be closed off completely? Will they be recognized at the same level as their male peers?

For women who have shouldered the lion’s share of household responsibilities during the pandemic, it’s not as simple as just going back to the office. The majority of the female workers who considered downshifting or leaving their jobs in 2020 cite child care responsibilities as a primary reason. Women have long based career decisions on the availability of child care, but COVID-19 and the closure of schools and daycares have exacerbated this issue even further.

All of these concerns are heightened for Black women, who have historically faced huge barriers to advancement at work. Black female employees in particular have reported feeling unsupported by managers and co-workers during COVID-19, with fewer than one in three saying that management has fostered an inclusive culture in the workplace.

It can’t be up to women to fight these problems alone — employers need to step up to ensure female employees are not left on the sidelines in the move back to the office. 

How employers can support female workers after the pandemic  

There are some proactive measures organizations can take to support their female employees as the world gets back to business. 

  • Adopt uniform remote work policies: Before the pandemic, working remotely often carried a stigma, with remote employees assumed to be less productive or less committed to their jobs than those in the office. The last year has proven that this isn’t true, and employers must reflect that in their remote and hybrid work policies. Encouraging all team members to spend an equal number of days working from home will leave less room for employee guilt over not being “present” at the office. 
  • Create a positive work-from-home culture: It’s essential that remote and hybrid employees are not passed over when it comes to promotions, pay increases, and recognition. Demonstrate to workers that their contributions are taken seriously, whether they’re made at home or in the office. A remote work management tool like Wrike makes communication and collaboration easier for a hybrid workforce, providing a single source of truth.
  • Offer more child care options: Lack of child care is a huge impediment to keeping women in the workforce. Acknowledge this concern by giving parents the flexibility to pick their kids up from school, attend their appointments or events, and care for them when they’re sick. See how your organization could further support working parents by offering a child care subsidy or providing an on-site creche or daycare service.
  • Provide more flexibility: Offer your employees more flexibility in general, whether that’s a hybrid working schedule, compressed working week, or the opportunity to create their own office hours. Stress the importance of a healthy work-life balance and, if necessary, establish policies for switching off after business hours. Ensure there is no stigma attached to this way of working by focusing on results — not when, where, and how many hours are worked. 
  • Work to minimize gender and racial bias: It’s often assumed (either consciously or unconsciously) that mothers are less committed to their jobs, which stands in their way when it comes to career advancement — they’re 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and offered lower salaries. Black women, meanwhile, are promoted at lower rates than other groups of employees and are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership. Commit to tackling unconscious bias at your organization. Track new hires, promotions, and job losses by gender to see if employees are being treated fairly.

Keeping women in the workforce is essential in combating wider gender inequality. While COVID-19 may have increased the already heavy burden on female employees, it does not have to stay this way. Organizations should do their part to support women and working parents, fight bias, and create a happier, stronger workforce.