This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”. I would go one step further and say: “If you want something done, ask a woman”.
Employers are constantly on a quest to find the right employees to fit their culture who are genuinely committed to the organisation.
In my opinion, some of the key traits that make a valuable employee are reliability, resilience, trust, transparency and dependability. Add mentoring, empathy, humility and a solutions-focused disposition and you may have defined the perfect employee.
Does this not sound like the job description of a mum?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many women have unfortunately had to leave the labour market and the proportion of females to males is on the decline. For those mothers still working in an era of homeschooling, social restrictions and lockdown, some have been forced to resign or reduce their hours as balancing work and family have frequently become untenable. Furthermore, women who are forced to exit the workforce are highly likely to face a negative bias due to gaps on their resumes. Recent research shows applicants with work gaps have a 45% lower chance of receiving job interviews than those without.
There are many ways to describe this inequality: “Mommy tax”; “the care penalty”; “the motherhood penalty”. Regardless of the term used, the outcome is the same: fewer working women in a world where 49.5% of the population is female.
There is a lifetime of income inequality between men and women in the workforce. While there are many contributing factors as to why women are paid less than their male counterparts, pausing their careers to have children being the most obvious, unconscious biases exist and are having an impact. There is bias against an employment gap in a resume and women not being seen as committed if they are mothers. There may be prejudice against women being promoted as equals to men, as well as receiving honest feedback. Undoubtedly, unconscious bias is not limited to human resource decisions; it may also lead to suboptimal choices in finance, marketing and operational processes, leading to fewer women in leadership roles.
Listen to the OECD's podcast on Fighting gender Inequality in cities: Lessons from women in leadership
Knowing this, mothers have developed a unique ability to ensure the credibility of their Curriculum Vitae. Mompreneurs, entrepreneurs and small businesses have enabled a cottage industry to emerge as women seek to bridge the gap between career and motherhood. These women are skillfully combining sales, marketing, general management, supply chains and a healthy dose of digital innovation, all of which would be invaluable to any employer.
Common quotes from mothers who want to return to the workforce are both genuinely shocking, yet utterly inspiring: “If only this company knew I would gladly work for free, just to get the chance to work”; “I want a job that allows me to pick up my kids even if that would mean I have to work during the night”. Are these not the attributes that we see so often reflected in company value statements? Flexibility, agility, teamwork and commitment to go above and beyond. If these are not obvious traits of reliable, trustworthy and committed candidates who could bring a wealth of talent, maturity and passion to an organisation, what are?
Despite this, for women to advance in the workforce, it is also necessary to consider flexible working policies and how they impact female employees. In the current climate that could not be more true, as the pandemic has caused a clash of professional and personal responsibilities, reshaping work and home life worldwide. While we have advanced on more equal tasks at home, women still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities and home care duties in much of the world.
In a survey of Hong Kong parents and family caregivers that Womentors conducted in partnership with JCI Hong Kong Jayceettes, How childbirth affects employment and career progression of women in Hong Kong, the findings were not surprising, yet they still give pause for reflection. More than half of respondents said they are spending more than 4 hours at home taking care of children or caring for adults since the pandemic began.
Unsurprisingly, many women are experiencing significantly higher levels of stress with the changing work conditions and increased duties at home. Since their commitments have grown, more than 32% of women in the survey said they were experiencing a substantial increase in stress due to the pandemic’s implications for their work-life responsibilities. The threat of burnout is real and could have dire consequences for the advancement of women in the workforce. The survey found that 62.5% of these mothers have considered resigning from their job to become a “stay-at-home” parent, to support their families because their working hours are simply too long to be able to help at home. This is an emergency for the corporate world both in Hong Kong and worldwide.
The question remains then, how can we move things forward in the face of such imbalance and loopholes in our society, that do not allow us to truly value these mothers? With seemingly little consideration for the invisible work done by mothers, it continues to have no economic value. Even before the pandemic, 43% of women with college degrees left the workforce after they had children. These are not women who set out to start a career and then resign: these are women who throughout their careers have had to suffer forms of imbalance and inequality. No wonder these women felt they had to withdraw.
The only way forward is to stand in the gap and we cannot do this alone. There is much work that needs to be done: creating flexible work roles and schedules, creating returnship programmes, creating more generous leave policies and reinforcing mandatory parental leave. Let’s not forget that achieving work balance is everyone’s problem, so it’s important to stop thinking about gender equality as only being about women—it’s about creating healthy societies that are sustainable for the future.
We need the help of every stakeholder to make a difference for our world and the future of our children’s world. For now, the harsh reality remains that women are being pushed out of the workforce with few ways to return.
See more data on gender inequalities in the OECD's Gender Data Portal
Read more about the ways to achieve gender equality in the OECD's report Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment