Covid-19 has been brutal on just about everyone, but it's been particularly miserable for working women who have been hit with a double whammy. First, women are overrepresented in industries like hospitality and retail that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. And second, as women still do the lion's share of caregiving, more of them have been pushed out of the workforce when the virus shuttered schools and daycare.
It's so bad that of the 144,000 jobs lost in America in December, just about all of them, on net, were lost by women, primarily women of color.
All of which is incredibly gloomy, but things will turn around and we'll revert to the agonizingly slow but steady climb toward fuller female employment and a smaller gender pay gap that categorized the years before the pandemic when this nightmare ends, right?
Not according to Brian Kropp, the chief of research for Gartner's HR practice, who recently broke out his crystal ball for a series of predictions for 2021 on HBR. While many aspects of the future he describes are cheerful (more flexible hours, more mental health support), at least one is downright miserable: Even after we're back to whatever the new normal is going to look like, we're going to see the gender pay gap keep increasing in 2021.
Why the "new normal" might not be so great for working women
Just about everyone agrees that the horses have bolted and there will be no shutting the barn door on flexible and remote work even after the pandemic subsides. At first glance, that seems like a good thing for working women. Juggling family and professional responsibilities are certainly easier when you're more in control of your own time.
Changes in schedules might make the juggle easier after the pandemic, but according to Kropp, that same flexibility is also likely to make existing inequities worse. He roots his prediction in hard data.
"According to a recent Gartner survey, 64 percent of managers believe that office workers are higher performers than remote workers, and in turn are likely to give in-office workers a higher raise than those who work from home," he points out, while also noting that a bunch of research shows this is just plain wrong. On average, remote workers outperform their in-office peers.
Managers aren't always logical, however, and they're likely to persist in overvaluing the contributions of employees they see face-to-face. And guess who is more likely to take those managers up on their offer of additional flexibility, despite the poisoned view of performance that comes with it?
Yup, that's right, women.
"If men are more likely to work from the office, and managers retain a bias toward in-office workers, we should expect to see managers overrewarding male employees at the expense of female employees, worsening the gender wage gap at a time when the pandemic has already had a disproportionate impact on women," Kropp concludes.
Don't be one of the 64 percent
Working women are likely to respond with a giant (but not terribly surprised), "Ugh!" But if you're a business owner, you have another option. If you are one of the managers captured in Kropp's 64 percent, change your beliefs about in-person versus remote performance and change that number.
If enough leaders finally get to grips with the growing pile of studies showing flexibility and remote work actually increase performance rather than decrease it, professional women won't end up penalized for the reality of their incredibly busy lives.
So if the thought of Covid leaving a legacy of a bigger gender pay gap horrifies you, take a long, hard look in the mirror and make sure you're not one of those bosses who consciously or unconsciously penalize flexibility. Fixing that bias won't just help you find and retain great talent, it will also contribute to making sure women across the nation are paid what they're worth.