The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on businesses and workers worldwide. Companies had to adopt online business models to survive, which forced an unprecedented workforce migration as employees left their offices to work from their homes. As the world starts to emerge from the pandemic, we’re beginning to understand the many effects of this economic and social upheaval on workers. New research shows that gender inequality, long a problem in the American workplace, worsened during COVID-19, and the insurance industry is no exception.
In March, Accenture surveyed 176 U.S. women in insurance to understand how the pandemic and the sudden shift to remote work affected them. We looked at the professional and personal effects this had on work-life balance and caregiving roles. At the same time, we surveyed 134 C-level insurance executives in North America to discover what the future of work looks like for their organizations. The results were both surprising and concerning and confirmed that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the well-being and productivity of women.
The survey reiterated the long-standing conflict between women as workers and women as caregivers, but the numbers were still striking. Most of our respondents are working mothers, with six in ten (59%) having school-aged children at home, and 68% saying they are the main caregiver for children or elders in their households. More than half (56%) say they face increased pressure as the primary caregiver as they juggle childcare responsibilities due to school closures, while working longer hours because of record business activities.
Our results revealed that almost one in three (32%) women working in insurance left their jobs temporarily or permanently during the pandemic – a sobering statistic. When asked why they left, 21% said childcare/eldercare priorities were the main reason. Meanwhile, 30% of women who remained at their jobs during the pandemic are considering leaving.
Additionally, 45% of women in insurance feel they have lost opportunities to grow their careers during the pandemic. Similarly, 44% say the pandemic has adversely affected their career progression while 39% feel disconnected from or forgotten by their companies.
Employees vs employers
We uncovered a stark disconnect between employer and employee attitudes on a number of issues. This includes the level of support women receive from their companies, the expectations for their return to the office, and the post-COVID changes they expect before returning to work. These disconnects must be addressed, because COVID added even more caretaking responsibilities to women, and they are not going away.
Consider the disconnect between corporate leadership and female employees in the number of days they are expected to work from the office. Nearly half (47%) of women surveyed believe they would lose advancement opportunities if not present in the office five days a week post-COVID, but only a quarter (26%) want to work in the office that much. More than a third (34%) want to work remotely full time, with the rest preferring a hybrid approach. By contrast, almost all (91%) executives would prefer employees to spend four to five days in the office post-COVID, and more than half (54%) believe their employees share that desire.
When women were asked how their employers can help, more than a third (39%) cited flexible scheduling, followed by increased paid leave (24%). This appears to be an area of progress for insurance firms, with 43% of women surveyed saying their employer is trying to offer more flexible scheduling.
A permanent culture shift
So, what does this information tell us, and what should insurers take note of, as many look to return their workforces to offices in the coming months?
First, remote working is here to stay, so companies must embrace this new model to support women and their needs, or risk losing them along with their years of experience, institutional knowledge, and dedication.
Next, in order to accommodate the remote or hybrid workforce of the future, companies will need to engage in a deliberate cultural change, one that ensures “remote” does not mean “less effective,” and that remote workers are not penalized for missing out on traditional in-person interactions, like the conversation over a cup of coffee or the face-to-face mentoring session. They will need to create return-to-office strategies that promote flexibility for women who need to juggle additional responsibilities outside of the workplace.
Finally, if firms incorporate flexibility in their return-to-office strategies, it may help prevent women from leaving the workforce in the future and persuade women who did leave to return.
What insurers and other financial institutions do next will have a major impact on the future of women in insurance, from entry-level workers all the way to the C-suite.