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Covid’s unexpected impact on women in the workplace

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Freeman EMEA remind marketers of the importance of women in the workplace through its Women of Agency initiative.

Just under a year ago I launched Freeman EMEA Agency’s ‘Women of Agency’ initiative with the aim of supporting, nurturing and growing women’s contribution to business. This felt critical to support my predominantly female leadership team and employees at a time long before we had heard of Covid-19 or experienced our first lockdown. We were simply busy enough managing the demands of work and life. But as we take inventory on the many outcomes of Covid – both now and looking ahead to life afterwards— it’s becoming increasingly clear that the need for this type of focus has never been greater.

In our last ‘Women of Agency’ digital event, Rachel Conlan, global brand partnerships of CAA Sports, shared that, “…women currently cover nearly 80% of key roles in industries that will play a fundamental role in recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, now more than ever women are essential to business.”

But while this was initially an acknowledgment of the need for diversity and inclusion in our economic recovery, Covid has confounded to cause difficulties for those very assets we require. There is a concerning trend showing that women in the workforce are being more greatly affected by reductions due to the economic impact of the pandemic, or that women are being made to choose to leave the workforce in exchange for responsibilities at home. This is partly due to the disproportionate burden that Covid-19 has placed on women who are juggling responsibilities with reduced family support networks, but also a result of furlough and job losses in female-dominated sectors such as hospitality, travel, events and the arts.

Women in the Workplace Research by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company revealed that one in four women are considering leaving or downscaling their roles in the US workforce as a result of Covid. 865,000 American women actually dropped out of the workforce during August and September alone. And statistics show us that women in the UK are twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs as a result of Covid. That leaves a massive gap in the workforce which will have years of irreversible impact if not addressed.

We already know that an increase in female representation is tantamount to commercial success, and not just at C-suite level which still has some way to go. The economy will also take an immediate hit due to lost business continuity, talent and knowledge, and a lack of crucial perspective if we don’t reverse this trend.

Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent interview to Forbes, “If we go back to a place where even more of our leaders are white men, we're going to build worse products that do not serve all the people that the customers are. We are going to build worse services. Diverse teams perform better for a reason, which is they have more cognitive diversity to rely on."

To offer additional warning, the International Labour Organization explained, “previous crises offer some cautionary lessons for the current one. They illustrate that when jobs are scarce, women are denied economic opportunity and security relative to men.”

With all we have to overcome as we move to the future, we simply can’t also lose a critical part of the world’s workforce. It is down to us to support women in the workplace, to help make this a temporary hurdle rather than a permanent outcome. The pandemic has caused our work and personal lives to merge indistinguishably. The notion of a ‘9-5’ no longer exists and any semblance of work/life separation is even harder to achieve. Therefore, it’s even more important to apply tactics that help prioritize a level of realistic balance and consequently enable women to choose to remain in the workforce.

“The conversation about how to help keep women in the workplace is no longer solely down to employer benefits packages and childcare solutions,” explains Michelle Collins, VP, talent and culture at Freeman.

“It requires support for a deeper level of shared responsibility and time equity, and an acknowledgement that ‘doing it all’ may no longer be the female ideal — or even physically or psychologically possible.”

“Our support of employees extends to ensuring that we provide overt signs that we care about their contributions, future potential, and wellbeing. We are challenging all of our assumptions about our workplace — from workloads and schedules, to leader training and virtual meeting norms, as well as our physical workplace requirements. This is all meant to ensure our women employees and other caregivers can thrive,” continues Collins.

As we slowly start to turn the corner with Covid, we are busily preparing ourselves and our clients for a post-Covid world. But let’s remember, while going about our respective businesses, that women remaining a vital force within the workplace is essential to our collective recovery.

Carley Faircloth, global VP and MD at Freeman EMEA Agency.

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