Women left behind in the wake of COVID-19

Women are accounting for less of the workforce due to COVID-19

by Alyana Versolatto

Picture of Shana

A conversation with Shana Laurie de Hernandez (MAcc’98, PwC Audit Partner and Chair of the Supervisory Board of PwC Europe) sheds light on the impact that the pandemic has had on women’s participation in the workforce.

In the span of only a few months, a large number of women have lost their jobs, lost advancement opportunities, or have voluntarily dropped out of the workforce. According to a new study from the Royal Bank of Canada, women's participation in the labour force has reached its lowest level in 30 years due to COVID-19.

A recent conversation with Waterloo alumna Shana Laurie de Hernandez, (MAcc’98, Chair of the Supervisory Board of PwC Europe) revolved around the impacts that the pandemic has had on businesses, and individuals – particularly women. The impact is not equal in every single country or industry, however, women working in the hospitality, retail, education and healthcare industries have shown to be the hardest hit. While professional services firms are not in one of the industries most affected by layoffs, significant challenges still exist for working women in professional services like assurance, tax and consulting.

“What I am reading and seeing is a lot of women either stopping their jobs altogether or moving to more part-time roles, which I find extremely concerning given the developments that we've made in my generation and the generations before me.” - Shana Laurie de Hernandez

Dubbed the ‘she-cession’, several studies in Canada have begun to quantify just how much the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. A study by Statistics Canada noted that one- sixth of all jobs held by women disappeared in early 2020, and a survey commissioned by The Prosperity Project, highlighted that the gender gap has been exasperated in regards to household labour— with women reportedly taking on more of the childcare and chores at homes. With the same number of hours in a day, but with many more demands and little to no work life separation — burnout can be inevitable.

“It's becoming more difficult to disconnect. The day starts whenever you pick up your phone and look at that first email until when you go to bed. It was already hard to create a distinction between work life and home life due to the speed of technology and all the developments we've made, but especially now, the two are overlapping each other more and more.”

To create the natural divide between work and home, some people recommend setting times for breaks and lunch each day or implementing a fake commute. However, it’s easier said than done, particularly when you take into account the socioeconomic impacts also affecting women.

In addition to extra labour demands at home, Laurie de Hernandez noted that advancement opportunities are also more limited for women working in a virtual environment.

“If you look at career growth and development, part of it is your output, but a lot is dependent on making connections with different people. The networking and the less official ‘chit chat’ that you lose in virtual meetings are instrumental to career growth. Additionally, to generalize, women oftentimes do a lot of work behind the scenes, and a lot of what they're able to contribute isn’t necessarily seen and recognized by their peers or whoever is evaluating them.”

To help solve this specific challenge at an individual level, Laurie de Hernandez’s advice for supervisors is to reach out to direct reports more proactively to check-in, with no agenda needed. And on the flip side, shy employees should take this opportunity to make that phone call to their boss and open up the line of conversation. At an organizational level, companies like PwC are continuing to utilize performance evaluations differently to create as much fairness and equity as possible.

“We have roundtables where all of our staff at one grade level are evaluated, and we look at the results on a statistical basis and across the whole population. We challenge ourselves on whether we've been as fair and unbiased as we can be in the evaluation process.”

Over the years, PwC has also conducted surveys to look at how productive people are over an eight-hour period, and the data has made leaders like Laurie de Hernandez realize that there is a law of diminishing returns for work hours.

“In the analysis that we've done, if you have teams working for several nights until two or three o'clock in the morning for a deadline, the extra time that they're staying working is not necessarily productive. If your day is extended, it doesn't mean you're that much more productive over that period of time.”

Even with the positive news of a vaccine rollout, what lies ahead is hard to predict. The setback this pandemic has dealt to women’s participation in the labour force, coupled with the hold on economic growth points to a harder recovery. Ultimately, Laurie de Hernandez believes we need to do more at an organizational level to create more equitable workplaces.  

“I do think that it will require an extra push from companies beyond what we were already doing. It was already a challenge to create more equity and more diversity in our teams before COVID hit. Now we have to be just that much more aware and cognizant if someone is struggling and trying to balance everything.”

Shana Laurie de Hernandez Transcript