By Raquel Barrera, Diversitas Institute – Feb 28, 2021
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive to the way in which we work. New ways of working have been introduced, accelerating changes and consolidating trends that instead of being assimilated gradually have burst in in quite a dramatic way. The consequences brought on by this crisis will shape the future of our economies and the world around us. Bearing this in mind, many questions arise. How will the future of work look after the pandemic? Are women well-positioned in a post COVID-19 world? What are the challenges and opportunities ahead from a gender perspective?
According to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute with the title The future of work after COVID-19 (1), the new post COVID-19 scenario highlights how, in the future, actual and potential changes in the workplace can transform business models and have an influence on client behaviour. As the study states, “COVID-19 has prompted consumer and business behaviour shifts, many of which will persist to varying degrees in the long run” (2). In this report, the long-term impact of COVID-19 is analysed in 8 different economies including Spain and the UK, across numerous sectors.
In general, every time I delve in to research on interesting and relevant topics, I tend to introduce the gender perspective. As a woman with a degree in engineering and who now works in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, it is my natural tendency. Taking this into account, I would like to share my reflections on some of the key findings of the aforementioned report.
During the pandemic, remote working has been one of the most obvious and visible shifts in the way we work. This new paradigm has been incorporated in quite an abrupt manner, paving the way towards a permanent change (more likely as a hybrid model) and raising questions about the implications and impact that it will have on our society. According to the McKinsey Global Institute report, between “20-25% of workers in advanced economies could work from home 3 to 5 days a week”.
From a gender perspective, the experience of working from home during the pandemic has had a different impact on men and women respectively. Just as an example, according to a study published by the University of Birmingham titled Working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown: changing preferences and the future of work (3) “conflict between work and family life may have increased more for mothers because of the multitasking and conflicting demands/responsibilities they faced in this period”. Also, thinking about the future, “it is likely that this type of conflict may lead to more women leaving, or being forced to leave the labour market”.
We also need to add another indirect outcome related to a more flexible workplace. As there will probably be a reduction in the number of people physically going in to work, as a consequence this could lead to a lower demand in jobs in some sectors such as retail or hospitality in which women are disproportionately more represented.
Automation and AI
The acceleration in the adoption of automation and AI is one of the expected ways to compensate the effects of the pandemic. Some examples could be: solutions to fulfil a potential rise in market demand, to reduce density in crowded spaces, to provide customers with contactless customer experiences or as traditionally assumed, to improve efficiency in the organisation’s processes (especially in repetitive and routine activities). In this regard, in the near future, sectors and occupations with a higher level of human presence could include these automation and AI technologies.
Again, some questions arise from the gender perspective. How will women be affected by automation? Some of the examples in the integration of Artificial Intelligence, such as chatbots in customer service or robots for cleaning services, point in the direction of a reduction of workforce where women are more represented. Another question to take into consideration is: are women ready for a new near future scenario, bearing in mind the importance, relevance and acceleration of the digital transformation in the workplace after the COVID-19 crisis?
Virtual exchange has emerged as a solution to reduce the risk, from a health and safety point of view, in close physical interactions. This increase in online activity could still be present after the pandemic and lots of the technologies, behaviours, services and business models could still be consolidated and even grow. Consequently, this could mean a reduction of physical presence in organisation’s facilities.
On the other hand, an increased demand in jobs related to the development of solutions of ecommerce and other virtual transactions can be expected. In this regard, there is a structural and systemic low presence of women in STEM. According to the Women in Digital Scoreboard (4) report published by the European Commission, in the UK only 17.5% of the ICT specialists are women. On top of that, the gender pay gap in the ICT sector in the UK is 15%.
Change in occupations
As a result of the crisis caused by the pandemic, it is very likely that low and middle-wage occupations (where women are mainly positioned) will suffer a drop in demand. On the contrary, high-wage jobs will probably grow (particularly those related to STEM activities in which women are not so well represented).
As the McKinsey Global Studies report states, “100 million workers may need to switch occupations by 2030”. In the case of the UK, it is estimated that around 3 million workers may need to switch occupation. Another example could be Spain with 2 million.
In summary, although these are only predictions that will need to be validated, there are challenges ahead that will arise. Therefore, it is crucial to do an exercise of awareness and reflection to anticipate the impact on women in the workplace in the potential scenarios which will follow COVID-19.
On the other hand, on a more positive note, not only will challenges emerge but also opportunities. As I stated in my previous article Reflections about women and the digital economy in a post COVID-19 world in 2020, it is absolutely vital to acknowledge that female talent is an opportunity that needs to be taken on within organisations. An active participation of women in the digital economy will not only increase the output and improve business performance, but it is also a key factor to guarantee and shape a fairer, equitable, diverse and broadly represented society.
Finally, at diversitas institute we firmly believe that incorporating Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in business can counteract the negative impact of the pandemic and can provide a wider approach to face challenges and opportunities in a post COVID-19 world.
(1) McKinsey Global Institute, 2021. The future of work after COVID-19, [pdf] Available at<https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work> [Accessed 25th February 2021].
(2) McKinsey Global Institute, 2021. The future of work after COVID-19. Executive summary, [pdf] Available
at<https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work> [Accessed 25th February 2021].
(3) Heejung Chung, Hyojin Seo, Sarah Forbes, Holly Birkett, Working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown:
Changing preferences and the future of work, [pdf] Available at
COVID-19-lockdown.pdf> [Accessed 26th February 2021].
(4) European Commission, 2020. Women in Digital Scoreboard, [online] Available at <https://ec.europa.eu/digitalsingle-
market/en/news/women-digital-scoreboard-2020> [Accessed 26th February 2021].