Some women are struggling through the pandemic – here’s how to help

A top employment lawyer shares her lessons from New Zealand's COVID-19 lockdown

Some women are struggling through the pandemic – here’s how to help

Women are more often perceived as “better champions of empathy” in the workplace in times of crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example.

This perception of empathy is the reason why employees tend to rally behind and gravitate towards strong female leaders, a recent study from two New Zealand universities suggests.

But what organisations forget is that crises like COVID-19 affect women profoundly, both at work and at home, and that many of them are likely suffering in silence.

“We are hearing about some significant impacts on women in the workplace – positive as well as negative,” said Steph Dyhrberg, a partner at Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law and the convenor of the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association.

Read more: What should employers prioritise post-COVID?

“Women are disproportionately represented in casual and part-time roles, and in the hospitality and retail sectors. Many women have therefore been without pay through the lockdown or on reduced hours or pay or both,” Dyhrberg told HRD.

This “overrepresentation” of women in the most severely affected sectors can lead to “worsening inequality,” according to the International Labor Organization.

The ILO estimates nearly 60% of working women globally are employed in the services sector.

Women also have “less access to social protection” and “bear a disproportionate burden in the care economy” whenever school and care systems are closed down, the organisation said.

Dyhrberg echoed the same views, citing the higher levels of stress and anxiety faced by women who experience “juggling childcare and household responsibilities with paid work”.

“Added financial pressure and the tensions (and domestic violence) in too many New Zealand homes are worrying,” she said.

Job cuts in recent weeks also affected families across the board but, in particular, female-headed households that typically have fewer options with which to cushion the impact of COVID-19.

The social welfare structure in New Zealand, for example, sets women in relationships at a disadvantage. “Many have not been eligible for jobseeker benefits,” Dyhrberg said.

“On the positive side, many women are reporting enjoying the benefits of working from home and hope to see increased acceptance by employers of flexibility for themselves and their partners.”

“Perhaps some women are benefitting from the increased realisation that women are excellent leaders, and not just in a crisis!” she said.

Read more: Is your team ready to return to the office?

Lessons from the lockdown
As more businesses reopen, discussions about work are shifting from survival to recovery. But how can employers help women who are struggling with the impact of COVID-19?

“Communication, communication, communication!” Dyhrberg said. “Genuinely listening to employees’ concerns without judgement, not making assumptions and taking a collaborative approach to problem solving are essential.”

“Employers had to be reminded during the lockdown that many parents would be caring for small children or trying to home-school older children. Expecting full hours and productivity was unrealistic for a lot of women,” she recounted.

“We still hear managers and boards seemingly at a loss as to how to get the benefit of more women in leadership and in governance roles,” she said.

For Dyhrberg, it’s about building a stable foundation for working women to advance in their careers – no matter the crisis.

“Having discussion forums or workshops about how to make the world of work more family-friendly and positive for women would be a great way to identify obstacles to the greater contribution and promotion of women,” she said.

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