Sue Duke: Working women have been hit hard by the pandemic but now is the time for change

Covid-19 has effectively wiped out progress towards gender equality in many industries but there is an opportunity to break down barriers and get more women into future-facing tech roles

‘The reality is that school and childcare closures saw women take more responsibility for childminding. That stepping up at home often came at the cost of stepping back at work.’ Picture: Getty

The latest insights published in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report make for difficult reading. The report makes it very clear that Covid-19 has taken a harder toll on women’s careers than men’s.

That’s partly due to the occupational segregation of the labour market; women work more in industries that have been hardest hit by restrictions, such as the hospitality and travel sectors. But it’s also because we saw a large reversion to traditional gender roles as working-from-home became widespread.

The reality is that school and childcare closures saw women take more responsibility for childminding and supervision of remote learning. That stepping up at home often came at the cost of stepping back at work.

LinkedIn data shows that female hiring rates fell significantly during the initial stage of the pandemic, a clear indicator of a disproportionate hit to women’s careers. There has also been a marked decline in women being hired into leadership roles during the pandemic, with our data revealing that the share of women hired into senior management positions is down in seven of eleven industries.

In many industries, progress towards gender parity in recent years has effectively been wiped out by Covid-19. It is worrying that senior women have lost their seats at the table, particularly when we know the influence and impact this has on driving long-term progress in gender equality.

An even greater challenge, however, is the severe gender gap in roles that are most in demand, particularly for disruptive technology skills like such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI). Not only do we need to ensure women are getting equal access to the jobs of tomorrow, but these roles – in cloud computing, engineering, data, AI – are precisely the roles that will have a significant influence in shaping all aspects of technology and how it is deployed in the world.

These are the roles that are growing the fastest, yet women are poorly represented and little progress has been made over the last few years. For example, the current share of women in cloud computing roles is 14.2 per cent, up a scant 0.2 percentage points since 2018 which is barely a blip in terms of momentum.

One of the clear consequences of the pandemic is the rapid acceleration in digitisation and the integration of technology into all aspects of our lives. We must have women’s voices and perspectives represented at this foundational, formative stage and playing an equal role in determining what technologies are developed, how they’re deployed and the impact they have.

While the report paints a worrying picture of the state of gender equality today and the disproportionate hit the pandemic has had on working women, all the indicators are that we are also storing up even more trouble for ourselves in the future. Without intervention today, we risk facing even greater gender equality challenges when we come out the other side of the pandemic.

Companies and governments must ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion are hardwired into their plans for recovery. This means encouraging a fairer distribution of care-giving responsibilities and addressing the double burden that many working women face, developing programmes to fast-track gender diversity across leadership roles, and tackling the root causes of the issue by changing the way we source and develop talent in organisations.

We also need to recognise the specific challenges around gender disparity in fast-growing, future-facing roles. Core to this is breaking down the barriers to these professions, and that includes making these areas of work more attractive for women. There is also a real opportunity to help women reskill for these roles and pivot into these sectors mid-career. Skills-based hiring is going to be crucial in making this happen; we need to look beyond formal qualifications and assess, recruit and develop talent based on skills and potential if we’re to achieve a more inclusive workforce and society.

The findings of the Global Gender Gap Report hold important lessons for how we rebuild our economies in the wake of the pandemic. While the pandemic has brought immense challenges, it has also created a huge amount of upheaval and change and we need to seize this moment to drive progress. We must act now so that we can look back on this pandemic as a positive watershed moment for gender equality.

Sue Duke is vice president and head of the Global Public Policy and Economic Graph Team at LinkedIn