COVID-19 has been especially harmful for working women. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses.[1] Within the United States, the National Women’s Law Center reported that 865,000 women were no longer working or looking for work – making up 80% of the people who left the workforce.[2] Even among women who did not leave the workforce, a McKinsey study showed that 1 in 4 women was considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19, at a rate 1.3 times more than men.[3] This applied to women across all stages in their careers – women in senior-level positions were 1.5 times more likely than men to consider slowing down or leaving.[4]

The fact that women are dropping out of the workforce at a rate higher than men is indicative of the gender pay gap that still exists. In a recent disruptHers podcast episode entitled Leading in a Crisis: Women in Tech on 2020’s Unique Challenges and Opportunities presented by Winston & Strawn and the Future of Women in Tech, Kalpana Chandrasekhar, Chief Operating Officer at Biteable, pointed out: “Oftentimes when that decision comes up in a household of who should be the one to step out of the workforce, if there are other demands, like taking care of the family or the kids, it tends to be the person who makes less money.”[5]

Moreover, even among women, different groups have been disproportionately impacted. Working women with children face a particularly heavy load – mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare, compared to pre-COVID-19.[6] Women of color were shouldering heavier burdens than white women, as they face disproportionate health and economic disruption from COVID-19.[7] Young women at the start of their careers, who are disadvantaged both by the existing gender pay gap and expectations to act as caregivers for aging parents and young children, are also particularly vulnerable.[8]

Successful Women Leaders in Covid-19

But at the same time, many women leaders have been more successful than their male counterparts in the face of COVID-19. Countries with women in leadership positions have suffered one-sixth times fewer COVID-19-related deaths compared to countries with male leaders.[9] Female leaders such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, for example, introduced strict proactive restrictions early on in the pandemic, which led to both countries largely eliminating COVID-19 and serving as lessons to other countries.[10] Within the United States, San Francisco, which has a female mayor, was the first city in the country to shut down, and one of the slowest to reopen, and has fewer than 150 COVID-19 deaths, compared to 7,000 in neighboring Los Angeles County.[11]

Numerous commentators have speculated as to the reason why female leaders have outperformed male leaders at managing COVID-19. Sweden’s former foreign minister stated that women leaders tended to exhibit more low-key, inclusive, with evidence-led leadership.[12] A King’s College sociologist stated that female leaders may be more able to adopt cautious, defensive policies, compared to male leaders who are bound by gendered expectations to be aggressive, forward, and domineering.[13] Women in leadership positions could be a signal that people of diverse backgrounds are able to win seats at the table, which leads to adopting policies after looking at advice from diverse viewpoints.[14] At any rate, it is clear that the pandemic is reshaping notions of female leadership.[15]

In the disruptHers episode, Chandrasekhar suggested that women have soft skills that help manage crises better, such as multitasking, string planning, organization, and empathy.[16] Susannah Torpey, co-chair of Winston & Strawn LLP’s Technology Antitrust Group, added that while such soft skills are undeniably important, women leaders were also the ones that listened to the scientists despite public backlash, and showed the ability to “exercis[e] good judgment in the face of harsh criticism and concerns relating to short-term economic effects.”[17]

Turning Crises into Opportunities

As the success of female leaders show, women can take times of crises and turn them into genuine opportunities by seeking leadership positions. As Susannah Torpey explained in disruptHers, research has shown that women have a higher chance of being promoted to a senior leadership position during a difficult time for a company.[18] When respondents in a study were asked whether they would choose a female or male candidate as CEO of a company that was either very successful or struggling badly, 63% thought the woman should take over when the company was in a crisis, while 67% chose the man to head the successful company – people thought stereotypically female skills, such as communication skills and the ability to encourage others, were needed to turn things around when the company was in a crisis.[19] During a period of overall stock-market decline, companies who appointed women as board members were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men.[20]

In the disruptHers episode, Susannah Torpey said the results “suggest that people really are inclined to trust women with transformational leadership.” [21] She also pointed out that the pandemic, and the resulting crisis that many companies face, could actually result in more opportunities for women, and pointed out that women who are able to do so “might actually be advantaged by seeking leadership positions now, or in other times of crises as a woman.” [22]

Moreover, the increased flexibility offered by the changing work environment post-COVID-19 may provide more opportunities for women. COVID-19 has made working from home the “new normal.” Tech companies, in particular, are embracing remote work as a permanent fixture. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that as many as half of the company’s employees will be working remotely from home within the next decade.[23] Twitter,[24] Square,[25] and Slack[26] have also announced that employees will be allowed to work from home permanently. For many women who may have had to give up job opportunities because it required them to relocate, travel, or manage a long commute, the shift to permanent remote work has the potential to become a “great equalizer.”[27]

However, women’s rise to power in times of crisis has serious downsides – with a higher risk of failure, women leaders are set up to fail, hence the term “glass cliff.”[28] Companies should not be comparing female leadership in precarious times under the same standard as male leadership in less turbulent times. Moreover, companies should also keep in mind that gender disparities are sometimes heightened in a remote working environment. Women are disproportionately burdened by childcare and household responsibilities while working from home – for example, mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare while working remotely, which is the equivalent to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job.[29]

As Susannah Torpey suggested in disruptHers, “we as a society really need to recognize [that women are facing a greater potential for failure] and reward women’s risk-taking in these times of crises.” [30] Moreover, “if women can be trusted in the most high-pressured situations to lead, we have to really take a harder look at what implicit biases are holding women back under more typical conditions.” [31]

Marti Grimminck, Founder & CEO of International Connector & The Future of Women in Tech, added: “We know from research and anecdotal evidence that the role of female leadership in times of uncertainty or crises is exceedingly important, and women tend to thrive when given the opportunity to lead and navigate their company through uncharted waters. We need to do better in making room for young women to take up these leadership roles, encourage, mentor, and support them so that it's not a precarious ‘glass cliff’ upon which they lead a company out of times of crises, but they are set up to succeed.”

The changes to the working environment brought by COVID-19 has an enormous potential to increase gender equality in the workplace. Women can benefit by holding leadership positions and taking advantage of the flexible work environment. Companies should also rise to the challenge, by making sure that they commit to policies that will allow women to remain in the workplace and helping women become successful leaders in times of crisis.