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COVID’s Costs on Workplace Equality – How Women Have Overpaid

Publish Date

25 AUG 2021


Sarah Turner


On Women’s Equality Day, we acknowledge and celebrate the progress women have made since the passing of the 19th Amendment over 100 years ago.

However, it’s also important to take stock and consider the work that remains to achieve not only gender equality, but equality for all, especially in the workplace. While some organizations are doing more to address this inequity than others, the fact remains there is more work to be done. Recently, the worldwide pandemic put a spotlight on the deficit of support for those, especially women, who act as family caregivers for children and/or for loved ones with special needs. As a woman and a human resource (HR) professional, I believe that to move the needle on equality in the workplace, the “human” element is really where we have to focus. When we take a humanistic, empathetic approach and really listen to understand– we make progress. But as we live through this ongoing pandemic, even the concept of “progress” needs to be re-evaluated. For instance, how do we measure “progress” when considering the harsh realities of the past 18 months?


Since the beginning of the pandemic, approximately 400,000 more women than men have left the workforce primarily due to the increased burden of caregiving duties on women. This exodus has nothing to do with ability, performance, or ambition, it’s not a choice, but a matter of meeting responsibilities. I saw this first hand in my role at EMD Serono. Even with our forward-thinking HR policies, like many other companies, we were not immediately prepared to respond to this unprecedented turn of events. Specifically, when schools and daycares began shutting down, I witnessed too many of my friends and female colleagues face the challenge of re-balancing their careers and family caregiving duties given our “new normal.” The anxiety of the pandemic coupled with pivoting to virtual learning or other childcare needs was overwhelming. Results from an internal survey conducted by EMD Serono on the effects of COVID-19 reported 85% of females (n=235) expressed stress relating to managing family obligations and work. However, the consequences of the pandemic we experienced in terms of work/life balance and the impact on female employees aren’t unique. And COVID isn’t 100% to blame.

If we want our valued women colleagues to return and stay, we need innovative policies that build a supportive, equitable work environment and sustainable career paths. Our company’s Future Ways of Working initiative focuses on taking the lessons learned from the pandemic shutdown and creating a more positive work experience by empowering teams with the flexibility and digital tools to choose when, where and how they get the job done. We are finding that this approach creates trust and more​ engagement, while unleashing​ creativity​ and ​productivity. While this is targeted to all employees, those with caregiver responsibilities at home are most inspired by and appreciative of the ability to work toward a greater work/life balance without sacrificing their careers. The greater flexibility we afford to all employees will bolster our attraction and retention efforts.

​At the same time, we are continuing to invest strongly in our award-winning internal Women in Leadership (WIL) program. This employee-initiated program began in 2016 with a conversation around gender imbalance and quickly evolved into part of a global-CEO1 sponsored initiative. WIL currently hosts various events in more than 26 countries including various training and development opportunities; executive coaching; executive sponsorship and connections to content and resources for men and women interested in furthering women’s careers. WIL has also inspired the launch of our employee resource group, Leaders of Color as well as our external-facing diversity and inclusion program, I’M IN.

But it’s not enough to change from within. EMD Serono is also committed to pushing other corporate leaders to examine their policies and create their own signature programs to support women. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it also has far-reaching economic benefit. Research tells us that if women participated in paid work at the same level as men, their economic power could add as much as 28 trillion USD to the annual global GDP. That’s why we support programs like the global Healthy Women, Healthy Economies initiative that strives to unleash the economic power of women by bringing governments, employers and other interested stakeholders together to help improve women’s health so women – and by extension their families – can join, thrive, rise in their communities and live better lives.

We may be moving in the right direction as a company and a society, but the truth is that meaningful change takes time. We need to continue to make work/life balance and caregiver support a priority even after the pandemic is over; implementing innovative policies that support all employees in order to create a motivated workforce. I’m proud to work at EMD Serono, where we believe inclusivity and equality is the key to realizing our greater ambition – improving the lives of patients and their families. While “progress” may look a little different this year, we are making strides in these areas despite COVID-related setbacks – and, ironically, maybe even because of them. As we continue our course, I look forward to seeing how much we’ve achieved by this time next year.


1 Within this blog, “Global-CEO” refers to the CEO of EMD Serono’s parent company, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. EMD Serono is the healthcare business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the U.S. and Canada.