One of the well-documented side effects of COVID-19’s economic impact has been the disproportionate harm it has done to employment for women.
According to global analysts McKinsey, more than half (54%) of global job losses during the pandemic have been of female workers, despite women making up just 39% of the workforce. That equates to women’s jobs being 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s through the crisis.
It is a similar story with recruitment. As hiring took a sharp dive overall during lockdown, women were less likely to find a job than men. According to data from LinkedIn, women accounted for just 41.5% of new hires in April, down from 45.6% in the whole of 2019.
This is bad news for longstanding efforts to level up employment and pay between the sexes across the economy overall. But it is particularly bad news for sectors like IT and tech which have been battling the biggest disparities in male and female employment.
Prior to the pandemic, women accounted for just one in five workers in the UK’s tech sector. The concern now is that, if action isn’t taken, efforts to begin to close that yawning gender gap could be completely undermined, and the sector could even slip backward in its employment practices.
Back in the home
Sadly, one of the lessons that will be taken from the shared experience of the pandemic is just how deep social mores around gender roles run. With schools closed and families facing the prospect of having to juggle work and education at home, it was women who picked up more of the child care and schooling responsibilities.
The LinkedIn study found that a third (32%) of working mums were looking after their children full-time before schools reopened in September, compared to 19% of men. A similar percentage of women (34%) said they shared childcare and homeschooling with their partner, but this almost doubled to 61% of men who said the same.
This increased burden could be one reason why women have been more vulnerable to losing their jobs, and would certainly explain why they have found it harder to find employment.
Even though schools are open again, no one can afford to be complacent about the issues lockdown has exposed in employment for women. With hundreds of schools already sending pupils home because of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 outbreaks, LinkedIn’s figures suggest that it will be women who pick up the majority of the childcare responsibilities.
The job market is expected to contract further through what is likely to be a bitterly hard winter for the economy. The danger is that we see employers choose to make female employees redundant first in anticipation of ad hoc disruptions in their ability to work.
That we should fall back on such old-fashioned assumptions is yet another bleak assessment of a broadly bleak situation. But employers, particularly in a sector like the tech industry, have the power to look at things another way.
Opportunity for reform
With the UK government reversing its position on getting workers back into the office and announcing a raft of measures to support reduced working hours, home working and reduced working hours could be the norm for millions for the next six months at least. That’s not a short term, temporary blip – we’re getting into the territory of these patterns becoming embedded in everyday life for the long haul.
It is in this context possible to see the current circumstances as an opportunity to reform the labour market in a way that will benefit women in particular.
The tech industry and tech jobs are ideally suited both to home working and to flexible employment patterns. As the majority of IT roles these days primarily involve working with software that can be run in the cloud, remote working is no barrier. Moreover, much tech work is project-based or else requires or is suited to round-the-clock input, so is perfect for less conventional working arrangements.
Moreover, as businesses adjust to another six months minimum of workers being told to work from home if, at all possible, we can expect demand for IT positions to grow. Homeworking requires technical expertise to set up and administer the infrastructure required to facilitate home working effectively. In addition, ongoing COVID restrictions mean sectors like retail and hospitality are going to continue to lean heavily on digital channels, creating yet more demand for tech-savvy employees.
These are opportunities for tech to kill two birds with one stone – tackle its long-standing gender gap and play a central role in reshaping the economy for a post-COVID future. The under-representation of women in tech roles is a gross waste of resources which is no longer sustainable, not when the tech skills needed to drive forward digital transformation at pace were already in short supply pre-pandemic.
If there is one area companies should invest in to bolster themselves through the rest of the pandemic and prepare for the world beyond, it is in tech recruitment and tech skills development. And with women expected to make up the majority of people available for recruitment, it makes sense that a considerable proportion of that investment should go to them.