Covid-19 is an unprecedented crisis that has fundamentally disrupted all of our homes and workplaces. There can be no dispute, however, that the pandemic impacts women in uniquely detrimental, even dangerous ways.
The female labor force participation rate dipped below 55% in April 2020 for the first time since 1986, when one of us was still in college and the other not even been born. A recent report by McKinsey estimates that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs right now. Women of color and immigrants are undoubtedly the hardest hit. Jobs in the informal service economy (including childcare, nursing, and housekeeping services), with limited workplace protections, make up 60% of female employment.
Beyond the workplace, Covid-19 has exacerbated women’s already precarious position in the home. Before Covid-19, women already did three times more unpaid work in the home compared to men. This fall, with many children beginning their schooling remotely, the additional burden will continue to fall on women.
Even worse and not surprisingly, the rates of domestic violence have increased dramatically as a result of lockdowns. At the same time, victims obviously face much more severely limited access to protective services (including alternate living arrangements) during periods of quarantine.
Although the public sector has begun to address some of these problems, one thing is clear: The private sector must be part of the solution. For employers, the time to act is now. In fact, in a recent report done by the Mom Project, 86% of working mothers surveyed stated that they would leave a job for an opportunity that better supports their work-life balance, and 75% of women said that employer support of work-life flexibility is the most critical criterion for feeling respected at work.
What should companies be doing? At a minimum, corporations need to ensure compliance with recently enacted legislation in response to the pandemic, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid or partially paid leave for eligible workers who need time off for qualifying coronavirus-related reasons. Many states and localities around the country are also rapidly passing legislation intended to fill in the coverage gaps left by the FFCRA.
Beyond mere compliance, there are numerous ways in which the private sector can mitigate the ways in which this crisis disproportionately hurts women. The first may seem obvious, but it is often woefully underutilized: Simply ask or survey women and working parents about what they need. This sets a tone from the top that leadership takes gender equity concerns seriously. Companies should also include women in all planning and decision-making: Research consistently shows that more diverse teams make better, more sustainable decisions. In the Covid era, companies should certainly apply this guidance to all crisis task forces and response teams.
Flexible Work Arrangements
In supporting working parents, companies must also keep in mind that the majority of unpaid care work falls on women. To address this, corporations should offer flexible work arrangements, support safe and appropriate child-care options, and offer equal maternity and paternity leave. Even smaller, day-to-day changes go a long way: Record events and meetings to enable parents to participate at more convenient times and encourage managers to stick to scheduled times for calls which demonstrates respect for the unique demands of working parents.
The private sector surely has a role to play in addressing the unintended health and safety consequences of stay-at-home measures as well. Companies should direct their employees to needed services, including domestic violence hotlines and support the physical health of their teams by offering comprehensive health-care coverage and benefits. Moreover, corporations can provide access to counseling services and offer trainings that address the growing mental health crisis plaguing many employees around the country as a result of the pandemic.
Forced to Act
It is hard to see much good coming from the current tragic circumstances we are living in. However, one silver lining may be that companies are finally forced to consider inclusive workplace policies and practices in order to retain top talent. While we all cross our fingers and pray for the day when a vaccine puts an end to the needless deaths and sickness, in keeping with the adage that one should never let a crisis go to waste, Covid-19 provides a unique chance for companies to showcase that their leadership takes gender equity seriously.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Roberta (“Robbie”) Kaplan, an attorney and founder of elite litigation boutique Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, chairs the board of directors of Time’s Up and is a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. She regularly advises clients on issues relating to discrimination, diversity and inclusion. She has been selected as one of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers” in the U.S., “Litigator of the Year,” “Lawyer of the Year,” and as the “Most Innovative Lawyer of The Year.” In 2013, Kaplan’s U.S. Supreme Court victory in the landmark case of United States v. Windsor turned out to be the penultimate step on the way to marriage equality two years later.
Rachel Tuchman is an attorney at Kaplan Hecker & Fink and specializes in gender discrimination matters. She has worked on numerous high-profile matters in the #TimesUp sphere, including representing an accuser coming forward about former New York Attorney General Eric Schniederman, and Melanie Kohler, the woman sued by Hollywood producer Brett Ratner for sharing her #MeToo story on social media.