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The No. 1 way to keep Covid-19 from setting women back at work

Martina Cheung, president of S&P Global Market Intelligence, shares her own experience, adding "companies need to establish standards that promote women in the workforce and also give them the flexibility to manage responsibilities beyond their careers." 
Martina Cheung with her partner, Tracy, and their child.
Martina Cheung with her partner, Tracy, and their child.Sandy SooHoo

In the few past months, we all have seen firsthand how Covid-19 has blurred the lines between our personal and professional lives. For me, this has meant finding a new balance of working from home alongside my wife and our son. And for companies, it’s put family leave in the spotlight and put the onus on them to help employees balance their careers and families.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the majority of men and women are spending increased time on childcare and family caregiving, which has led to a dramatic increase in stress levels, according to new research we released at S&P Global, in partnership with AARP.

In fact, 58 percent of respondents in our survey said they are spending more time on childcare and family caregiving, with more than 30 percent saying they were experiencing a strong increase in stress from balancing work-life responsibilities.

The good news is many companies have increased the benefits they offer since the global pandemic hit the U.S., with close to 37 percent of companies, regardless of size, adding flexible hours to their policies. The pandemic has forced a sharp and sudden acceleration in family-care benefits as companies and employees grapple in real-time with closures of daycares, schools, nursing homes and offices.

But 37 percent is not nearly enough. And as we near the seven-month mark since Covid-19 hit the U.S., even more employees will hit a breaking point and start to drop out of the workforce to deal with family care responsibilities if we do not make a change. The majority of these employees will be women, which we have begun to see happening in dramatic and concerning ways. In September alone, 865,000 women age 20 and older left the workforce, compared with 216,000 men within the same age bracket, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of Labor Department data.

Our research shows that flexibility is key to recruiting and retaining women right now .According to Equileap data of 1,300 large publicly listed companies across 11 sectors, those that offer flexible hours and have equal recruitment policies tend to recruit more women and see lower voluntary and total turnover rates, which is critical as women are leaving the workforce in record numbers.

I know this firsthand.

Before I started in my current role as president of S&P Global Market Intelligence, I had a meeting scheduled with our CEO and had planned to tell him that my partner and I were having a baby. When I arrived in that meeting, he offered me the role of division president, and I said, “I suppose now is a good time for me to tell you that Tracy is pregnant and we are going to have a baby.” His immediate response was “Congratulations, take time off. I don't want this new position to impact your plans.”

Martina L. Cheung is President of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Martina L. Cheung is President of S&P Global Market Intelligence.S&P Global

I had a number of people tell me it will be very important to send a message that I’ll be taking time for maternity leave and to really disconnect when the baby is born. I did just that, and what I loved was after I sent the message, I got emails from men saying, “Thank you for doing this because I've always thought that it was sort of invalid for the non-birthing parents.”

While my experience was positive, many in the workforce today cannot say the same.

Yes, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the discussion around more family-friendly policies. But fears that current conditions will become permanent and significantly set back women’s participation and advancement in the workforce are crystalizing.

Covid-19 has clearly demonstrated that companies need to establish standards that promote women in the workforce and also give them the flexibility to manage responsibilities beyond their careers.

After all, women in the workforce play a major role in accelerating global economies, and that acceleration in U.S. GDP growth under increased female labor force participation could add almost $6 trillion to global market capitalization in 10 years, according to research from S&P Global. We’ve also found that firms with female CFOs are more profitable and have produced superior stock price performance.

Companies and employers need to step up. I am hopeful that our workforce, especially women, will experience many of the upsides to the pandemic. As employees work from home, children and family members have become regular fixtures in the background of online meetings.

Their increased visibility can lead to better communication about the burden of family care, more expansive family-leave policies and reduced stigma around taking such leave. Importantly, it could also lead to greater flexibility around work schedules and work locations, and in turn creating more options for employees who are juggling — admirably — to do it all.

Martina L. Cheung is President of S&P Global Market Intelligence, one of the four divisions within S&P Global. S&P Global Market Intelligence specializes in providing differentiated data, essential insights, and powerful analytics to help its clients navigate global markets. In her role as President, Ms. Cheung oversees all aspects of the Market Intelligence business, including commercial, product, data, content and operational functions.