• Mer. Mag 29th, 2024

Women, work and the pandemic: the Women at Business project

Nov 11, 2021
Donne e lavoro

In Western society, the condition of working women has evolved, but despite the huge legal changes over the last century and a half, a significant gender disparity persists, a disparity that is a variety of causes:

  • difficulty in accessing work
  • difficulty in reconciling family and work duties
  • inequality in earnings
  • lack of, or inadequate, representation at senior levels of a company
  • social, cultural, and psychological obstacles that may seem invisible but still have a profound impact on women’s lives.

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has made an estimate of the time it will take to achieve equality if change continues at today’s pace. We are talking 60 years!
If we focus on women in work, the European picture is hugely varied, but Italy lags behind the norm: being a woman in the workplace is already an objective disadvantage in Italy, but being a mother makes the picture dramatically worse, especially in the south of the country and on the islands – Sicily and Sardinia.
From the data of the National Labor Inspectorate of 2019, (thus pre-pandemic), there were 51,558 labour disputes relating to working fathers and working mothers. Although the resignations among dads are increasing, the disparity is still enormous: in 2019, 7 out of 10 such cases, 37,611 to be precise (72.9%), concerned working mothers.

In 21,000 cases, the reason given for the resignation was ‘the objective difficulty of reconciling work with the needs of children’ and, in particular:

  • the absence of supportive relatives to help care for new-borns (15,505 cases)
  • the high cost of infant care, such as babysitters or nurseries (4,260 cases)
  • failure to obtain a place for the child at nursery (965 cases).

Numerous studies also show that women who become mothers experience a decrease in their income linked to their maternity, the so-called child penalty, which is evident in the income of mothers but not those of fathers.
In Italy, according to the INPS analysis: “The loss of earnings is very pronounced in the short term, particularly in the year of maternity leave and in the following year, but it also carries on for several years after the birth. Fifteen years after maternity leave, mothers’ gross annual wages are, on average, 5,700 euros lower than those of women without children.”

The pandemic and women’s work in Italy

The pandemic, an experience totally new to the post war generation, has completely changed the world of work for women. From early 2020, rules and prohibitions have impacted heavily on the life of people all over the world: social distancing, masks, isolation, have all taken their toll on habits and lifestyles. Over the course of a year, a culture of interpersonal engagement was swept away, and people found themselves locked at home, with technology as the only way to keep in touch with friends and relatives.

In this scenario, many women have become mothers, some for the first time, in a completely new context, with changed birth paths, activities cancelled or transferred online, with a feeling of anxiety and insecurity caused by fear of Covid, or worse, the fear that their children might become infected. Women with older children have lived with these fears for themselves and their children, trying to navigate a safe course between distance learning, homework and free time, always with the concern at the back of their minds of the psychological impact of all this on the mental and emotional l well-being of their children.
It has been mainly mothers who have been affected by the current crisis, with an increase in the burden of unpaid care and a strong downturn in the labor market.
Fabio Mosca, president of the Italian Society of Neonatology wrote in his book about the declining birth rate : “Becoming parents in the last 20 years and in particular today, in Italy, is one of the most difficult choices anyone can make, because families -and working mothers in particular – have to get by on their own: there is a lack of support structures and resources to support families, especially women, in reconciling the demands of home and work life.”

The difficult work of women and young people

Women and young people are the two groups in society who, even before the crisis, found it hard to break into and remain within the labor market. The pandemic has sharpened those pre-existing gaps. Employment rates of 15-64 year olds decreased for both genders, showing 67.2% for men (down 0.8%) and 49% for women (down 1.1%). The gender gap, which was already substantial previously, also worsened, reaching 18.2 percentage points (p.p.) in 2020.
The gender gap follows a predictable trend from region to region: in the North and in the Center of Italy they remain around 15 p.p., but the gap widens to 23.8 in the South and in the Islands (Italian statistics agency data, 25/03/2020). In 2020, due to the pandemic, a total of 456,000 jobs disappeared (a decrease of 2% compared to the previous year, which Istat defines as ‘unprecedented’). Women are most affected: for them the drop is dramatic – 249,000 fewer working women (- 2.5%) compared to 207,000 fewer men in work (- 1.5%).

In the period April-September 2020 alone, the loss of employees recorded by the Foundation for Labor Consultants found that for Italy the decline in female workers was double the European average (4.1% compared to the 2.1% EU average), registering the highest contraction after Spain, but the same study showed that Italy was the country in which the gender disparity was the highest, with a gap of 1.7 pp between men and women (the contraction is respectively -2.4 and -4.1.)
According to the Foundation. “Italy continues to represent a unique case in the European and international scenario as regards female work. Participation of women in the workforce has always been much lower than in other countries. But even when women enter the world of work, their job security remains weak, making them more exposed to the risks of expulsion from the market compared to men and colleagues from other countries.”
According to a survey conducted by the Smart Working Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano among about 8600 workers in public and private sector organizations working from home, women have found more problems in smart working than their male colleagues; one of the reasons being the greater domestic and care burden of children and families, and consequent difficulties in reconciling private and professional life.
The Observatory estimated that, in 2019, smart workers in Italy were, in total, about 570,000; during the emergency that number leapt to 6.58 million. The researchers also estimate that, after the pandemic ends, remote working arrangements will be partially maintained.

And to make matters worse, in 2019 the average smart-worker operated from home for one day a week, but after the pandemic it’s forecast that the days out of the office will increase to 2.7 in private companies and 1.4 for public sector employees. Remote workers will be approximately 5.35 million (1.72 million in large enterprises, 920 thousand in SMEs, 1.23 million in micro-enterprises and 1.48 million in public administration).

Women’s resilience: the Women at Business (WAB) project

In this context of clear disparity in the workplace women have responded, trying to find ways to overcome the crisis, through networking and sharing skills and opportunities. An example is the Women at Business (WAB) platform, a project to enhance and share women’s skills through a new model based on skills and planning.
Women At Business (WAB) came into being on February 14, 2020 from an idea by Laura Basili and Ilaria Cecchini who – following the key principles of innovation, accessibility, inclusion and social sustainability – decided to give life to a project to enhance and share the skills of women.

Women At Business is the first community of women and companies to use an innovative proprietary matching algorithm, which finds the best match from two databases: one of available female skills and the other of business projects in search of these skills. It constitutes a virtuous circle – an economic project based on skills which would otherwise be unused and ultimately lost.
There are many – too many – women at home with skills and experience or young women who have just finished their studies and are looking for a project to kick-start their careers. There are more than 4000 already women registered in the Women At Business database there are about 100 projects underway. WAB with its Together Manifesto, To-get-her is a practical tool to increase female employment and to implement goal five of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for a more sustainable future.

How the project was born

The idea of WAB came about because of a very personal and shared experience of the two founders, namely the desire to have a professional project to which they could devote themselves. They analysed the Italian market in September 2019, pre-pandemic, and realized that there were many women who gave up work due to their inability to reconcile work and family duties. They asked themselves where such women had ended up and decided to create something to fill a gap in the Italian market, namely a service for all those women who, for one reason or another, had interrupted their career, but who wanted to re-enter the job market.

During their research and the creation of the new business model, they were hit, like everyone else, by the pandemic which had clearly exacerbated a pre-existing problem. “No one can have failed to notice the high number of ‘disengagements’ among the female workforce and how much potential has gone untapped to allow priority to be given to other responsibilities (often on a temporary basis) responsibilities often linked to family duties. These are significant steps backwards that prevent us from grasping new opportunities,” say the creators of WAB.
The goal of the project is to bring businesses and the professional talents of women closer together to create an innovative model that is more ethical and flexible and thus links into sustainable development. Laura and Ilaria believe what is needed is a paradigm shift, that means companies and employees adopting flexible work patterns, superseding the old stereotypes such as the belief that committed staff stay in the office indefinitely. “The project was built around our mission to enhance and extend women’s skills. There are many women at home, too many as far as we are concerned,” they say. “We created a community, an online platform that includes two databases: one of women’s skills and one of company projects and requirements. Our business model requires women to register for free, while the companies support the project from an economic point of view “.

How to make female and business needs coincide?

The link between companies’ requirements and professional women available for work is made through an objective and meritocratic matching algorithm. “We like to define ourselves as a cross between Linkedin, because the field is professional, Tinder for the matching element, and Bumble because it is women driven!
“The business model was also designed around our mission: an all-inclusive annual membership in which unlimited skills can be sought by a member company. Our aim is to offer as many opportunities as possible to the women enrolled in our community,” explain Laura and Ilaria who say they have identified a tech partner to support them in creating the platform and the algorithm.
“The tech partner is Sys Dat, a company that has been operating in the IT field for 30 years, which immediately believed in the project and made their know-how and expertise available to us. It’s a partnership based on the sharing of values.”
They add: “We have a team of local Ambassadors who help us identify and contact companies. They are seven women with amazing stories to tell, some found thanks to our matching algorithm, some who contacted us directly after reading about us or after hearing about us in a programme on the Milan-based radio station RTL 102.5. They believed in the project right from the start and see it as a chance to give something back in a way that will help other women. The network between women is essential and when it works it is a very powerful weapon,” Laura and Ilaria continue.
“The community is growing, 5000 women so far, with very different backgrounds all with their own professional experiences and studies behind them. Many have come to us via word of mouth, others read about us, or found us because they have participated in our live events. Many have also come via social media.”

Women join for free. The registration form is very intuitive and allows them to tell their professional story without resorting to the tired old format of the classic CV. The first part relates to their skills, then the question is answered, “What can you do?” We ask them about which languages they know, their educational qualification, their work experience, and the story of their years of inactivity, finally there are fields dedicated to flexibility and their time availability and willingness to move. An empty box at the end then allows women to tell their professional story and what they are looking for in new projects.

“We do not ask the age of the women, so as to be as inclusive as possible, and ensure they get all the opportunities they deserve,” explain the two founders. “All this happens in a totally confidential way with proper protection of privacy guaranteed. In fact, browsing is not possible within the databases. It is the woman who chooses which company she wants to be given access to her profile by simply typing a ‘like’ on the proposed project.”

Which companies are ready for this project?

The companies participating in the project are innovative and forward-looking, and usually very advanced digitally. They almost always have multiple projects in development and are always looking for new solutions and new models to apply to their skills research.
They are modern companies that try to achieve a good fit between sought-after skills and the requirements of a specific project.
They usually have a particular sensitivity to social sustainability projects and to the issue of women’s work. “By supporting a project like ours, they are helping Italy to bounce back after the pandemic with all its resources available, without excluding anyone,” say Ilaria and Laura.
The project receives a high approval rating among companies taking part, but sometimes budget issues or lack of time prevent collaborations. “We realize that we are asking for professional opportunities at a difficult time for everyone, including companies. But we are confident that there will be a bounce back and consequently we expect more companies to sign up.”

Client companies are listed on the WAB home page. They vary from large companies, key players in their sector, to small start-ups, from medium and small companies and professional firms to institutions.
What distinguishes them is their far-sightedness, their sensitivity towards the issue of female employment and the use of effective innovative tools to achieve their goals.
The profiles of the 5000 and more professional women, are all different and include women of all ages, from recent graduates or those who left school during the pandemic, to those who are older with a lot of work experience behind them who are looking for a new start professionally.
There are women also currently in work who are testing the market for their professions. They come from all over the country, they speak all sorts of languages, often more than one.
There are women who have worked in communication, in all manner of company functions, women engineers, those with a background in biomedicine, architects, lawyers and accountants, psychologists and mathematicians, even veterinarians.
They constitute a snapshot of a hugely impressive pool of resources ready to get back into the workforce, to learn new skills and to find a new dimension in their own lives.
When it comes to feedback from the professionals, Laura and Ilaria are clear in their experience: “The feedback is very positive; the most tech-friendly women enthuse about the tool we have made available to them, and then there are the more technophobe ones who, once they understand the potential, often write moving messages to us. The phrase they use most often is: ‘You have changed my life.’
“We have also experienced a huge response to all the training opportunities we offer. There are women out there who are determined to keep up with the new professional challenges. And the feedback from them is definitely in the form of a huge thank you!”

In what ways the project is working, what is not working and how it can be improved?

In six months, the platform has already generated more than 1000 matches. This does not mean that 1000 women have all found a job, but it means that first of all that companies are looking for skills and, therefore, a recovery is underway, and that in response to the skill shortages, there are the women with the skills needed to get back into the job market.

The project is only a year old, there is still a lot to do. “Everything can be improved; we are already on phase two of many aspects of our project. The wonderful thing about being a start-up is that we grow with our customers, listening to their needs and finding intelligent and innovative solutions together,” say the two founders. “Our commitment is to grow and circulate as many women’s skills as possible. We can always do more and do better to give everyone a new opportunity and the chance of the work/life balance that we all seek.”

The most suitable companies for this project are those that are fully digitized. This leads to the exclusion of those companies that are still undigitized. Likewise, the project cannot accommodate companies that don’t have sufficient funds to join. According to the Italian statistics agency, about 82% of companies with at least 10 employees are at a ‘low’ or ‘very low’ level in their adoption of ICT, the remaining 18% achieving ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of digitization.

Familiarity with the digital world is an issue that especially impacts women. According to the European Commission’s 2020 report on women’s digital skills, while the rate of male EU citizens who have never used the internet has plummeted from 40% in 2009 to around 15% in 10 years, the rate for women is still stagnant at around 19%, in other words women are 2 years behind men. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have the continent’s highest digital participation rates for women, while women in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Italy are less likely to work online, and also lag behind in personal use of the Internet and computer skills in general.

Women at Business is an ongoing project that has already highlighted two important lessons. The first is that women have the strength and energy to relaunch their careers, they are up for the challenges of the future. The second is that there are virtuous companies out there that can make a difference to women’s lives, believe in gender equality, and enhance women’s skills.

English translation by Ronnie Convery

Mariangela Campo
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