For years, the gender pay gap in the United States had been narrowing. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic.
A confluence of factors—layoffs, businesses shuttering, lack of childcare—caused women’s workforce participation to plummet to a 33-year low. Women of color have been especially impacted. Research from LeaniIn.org and SurveyMonkey reveals, for example, that 58 percent of Black women reported being laid off, furloughed, or having their hours or pay reduced in 2020, compared with 31 percent of white men.
While men have rebounded from pandemic-related job losses, women have not, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. And when women do return to work, many will take a post-hiatus pay cut.
Experts have raised the alarm about a pandemic “she-cession,” with Vice President Kamala Harris calling women’s mass departure from the working world “a national emergency.” And while the pandemic didn’t cause the wage gap, it worsened the challenges that women faced all along.
Remote work: a double-edged sword
Studies show that women and people of color, especially, love working from home. But in a survey by management consultancy Egon Zehnder, most C-suite leaders—7 in 10—said that remote and flexible employees may be passed over for promotion into leadership due to less physical visibility than their on-site peers.
“I would actually expect pay equity to get worse because a lot of companies have switched to hybrid work without putting in place the infrastructure needed to ensure that hybrid work doesn’t penalize those who do it,” says Joan C. Williams, a feminist legal scholar, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, and professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “People who show up on-site get greater access to career-enhancing work. This is just going to exacerbate the problem that women have in getting fair access to career-enhancing assignments, which in turn will decrease pay equity.”
Even pre-pandemic, research by the Center for WorkLife Law—whose database comprises 18,000 people—found a dramatic gender difference in perceived fairness of access to career-enhancing work. Among white men, generally professional workers, 85 to 90 percent usually report fair access to career-enhancing assignments. Everybody else reports sharply lower rates, with (in one data set) just 53 percent of women of color saying the same. That’s bad news indeed because addressing career inequity is key to achieving pay equity.
Williams says managers need to pay attention to who’s getting the plum assignments. She’s also a strong advocate for measuring progress at key points where bias rears its head, such as in hiring, performance reviews, and promotion rates.
“Advanced technology platforms can ensure that every talent decision made at your organization is free of bias,” says Katica Roy, a gender economist and founder of Denver-based Pipeline, which leverages artificial intelligence to identify and drive economic gains through gender equity. “That way, you can ‘seal in’ pay equity systemically and proactively, rather than remedying pay gaps after they open.”
Roy cautions that flexible and remote work could skew performance evaluations unless managers are trained to value remote employees equitably. Employee performance should be evaluated based on results, not on an employee’s location.