Letting work evolve won’t make it fair—we need to reinvent it

Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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When PwC released its 2022 Women in Work Index, the big reveal—that women had been set back by the pandemic by at least two years—was depressing, yes, but surprising? No.

By now, we all know that the imperatives of caregiving dragged more women than men out of the workforce, and kept them there. We’ve all read the stats which show that industries which employ more women, like hospitality, were hardest hit, and even in other sectors companies fired more women than men.

We know that people of color were hit worse than white people in rich societies. And we’ve heard so many calls for retraining, up-skilling, and general system-tweaking that would help get more women into growth areas of the workforce, that it’s hard to focus on the substance of them any more.

But Larice Stielow, a senior PwC economist and the lead author of the report, is calling for something more radical than tweaks. The pandemic, she said, was the biggest thing to happen to work since the global financial crisis back in 2008. What’s coming down the road—automation, and a wholesale change to a “net zero economy” as PwC phrases it—means that work has to change. This is an opportunity to make a plan.

Companies need to change their policies for everyone

Companies need to recognize that this post-pandemic moment is “a real opportunity to design a future world of work that actually works better for women,” Stielow said.

That means urgently re-thinking leave and flexibility policies. Crucially, flexibility to arrange work around caregiving and emergencies needs to be available to everyone, not just women. Mothers with children under 12 were three percentage points more likely to leave the workforce during Covid than similar fathers, the PwC report found, while there was only a negligible difference in every other group: Proof that a big reason for women leaving was “the burden of unpaid care work.”

Paid parental leave, meanwhile, should follow the Icelandic model where both parents get equal paid leave on a “use it or lose it” basis, meaning more fathers take longer leaves and women’s careers take a smaller hit, Stielow said. Affordable child care is the third part of the puzzle.

Governmental change takes a very long time, Stielow said, so companies can prove themselves progressive by leading the way on this change, and enhancing their reputation and attracting talent in the process.

Companies need to make a plan for minorities

Business already knows it needs to do more to make the workplace—from hiring policies to company culture—fairer for minorities.

But as companies plan their next big transitions—the post-covid return (or not) to offices, increased automation, and a much greater focus on sustainability—they have the opportunity to make plans that actually lead to equality, instead of maintaining the current unequal system. In the UK, for example, PwC discovered that unemployment had fallen over the past decade for every group except ethnic minority women, for whom it had risen. Those women were also paid almost 15% less than white men even when controlling for education, job title, and just about everything else the economists could think of.

Take the transition to net zero—whereby economies stop adding to the emission problem wrecking the climate—as an example: All the key areas of job growth like utilities, construction and manufacturing, are male-dominated, and without a concerted effort the transition to net zero  will widen existing gaps in unemployment and pay. PwC suggests looking to women and ethnic minority women especially, in adjacent sectors that have transferrable skills.

“If we don’t now plan for the gender impacts of the net zero transition we’re only going to further increase the disparity and the job inequality between men and women,” Stielow said.