As COVID-19 disrupted American life over the past year, it proved especially damaging to financially vulnerable households and small businesses. Low-wage nontraditional workers and people of color have been the most severely affected. The need to ensure an inclusive and sustainable economic recovery has never been clearer. But an antiquated patchwork of benefits is leaving workers behind. They simply fail to account for modern realities and the changing nature of work in the digital economy. 

Millions seeking federal and state unemployment insurance faced delays and hurdles caused by outdated technology and infrastructure. Financially vulnerable people such as those without a bank account or those who had not filed tax returns online experienced longer delays in accessing stimulus payments via check or direct deposit. One national survey of 25,000 people found that for every 10 people who filed for unemployment insurance successfully, three to four tried but failed and another two didn't even try because of the perceived difficulties.

The challenges for people with nontraditional work are particularly severe. They often are forced to live without much of a safety net, even in the best of times. One-third of our economy is now made up of people who work outside the traditional employer-employee relationship. This includes everyone from a part-time caregiver to a full-time caterer who runs her own business.

Last year, Congress expanded the types of workers who qualified for unemployment benefits to include those in the gig, contract, and self-employed economies. This decision acknowledged that while the nature of work had drastically changed, our benefits systems failed to keep up.

There is a pressing need to modernize both public benefits and those coming from employers so workers can succeed in the digital economy. Today's workers need access to benefits that move with them. Left unattended, these challenges will become major obstacles to rebuilding an inclusive and sustainable economy. There are three key areas of reform that can help modernize our benefits system.

Ensure benefits for all

We need to put more benefits squarely in the hands of workers, irrespective of their work arrangement and employment status. AliaThe Black Car Fund, and Catch are just some of the innovative programs in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors that are meeting the needs of workers in today's economy. Now, more than ever, a system of portable benefits that allow workers to access healthcare, retirement, lifelong learning, and other critical benefits must be part of a modern social safety net.

Improve technology infrastructure

The technology that serves as the backbone of our public benefits systems needs to be upgraded. The application, eligibility, verification, and disbursement processes need to be streamlined through investments in both technology and training for staff.

Washington state is leading the way by modernizing benefits for paid family and medical leave. The state government worked with private-sector firms to set up digital accounts for workers, funded by employers and the workers themselves. More than 70,000 Washington residents signed up in the first three months it was offered. The platform has already been used to disburse over one-quarter of a billion dollars in critical paid-leave benefits. 

Integrate equitable solutions

To ensure that modernization is inclusive, governments at every level need to reimagine how they build benefits technology systems. Emphasis should be placed on expanding access to the most vulnerable populations, while still ensuring they keep pace with innovation.

The recovery from the pandemic will be a long road, and it requires rethinking how we support workers. To create lasting reform, we should strive toward solutions that are people-centric, interoperable, portable, and inclusive — such an approach would benefit all workers, regardless of their work arrangements.

How can these principles be put into action? Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia lays out a vision that reimagines a more inclusive economy and invests in workers' needs through the creation of portable lifelong training accounts. Both employers and workers could contribute to them, which would help workers afford the training they need for the jobs they want. Ongoing legislative efforts led by Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Warner, and others to overhaul the technology used to access state unemployment insurance are another crucial step that can help workers more easily access benefits while they look for employment.

We have a unique opportunity to create a sustainable, inclusive digital economy, one that works for everyone, everywhere, and come out of this period stronger and more resilient than before. The pandemic has made it clear we now live in an extraordinarily interconnected system. It is in everyone's interest to equip workers with the support they need to succeed in the modern economy, not just settle for the approaches of the past.

There are imbalances in the earnings of women and men. One way of measuring this imbalance is through the gender pay gap, which shows the difference between the average gross hourly earnings of men and women expressed as a percentage of the average gross hourly earnings of men. It is calculated for enterprises with 10 or more employees.

In 2019, women's gross hourly earnings were on average 14.1% below those of men in the EU. This varied among the EU Member States, with the highest differences observed in Estonia (21.7%), Latvia (21.2%), Austria (19.9%), and Germany (19.2%).

On the other end of the scale, the differences were smallest in Luxembourg (1.3%), Romania (3.3%), Italy (4.7%), and Belgium (5.8%).

Man and woman figures standing on two sides of the gap showing different values of pay gap in different EU countries​​​​​​​

 

As another International Women’s Day rolls around, businesses have been making bold pledges to empower their female employees and strive toward equality. But still, in 2021, large swathes of women say their gender remains a major barrier to their professional progression.

A full one-third of women in Asia-Pacific say they believe their gender has been a significant barrier to opportunity because of the lack of guidance, skills and time they receive as women, according to LinkedIn’s Opportunity Index 2021.

As a result, two in five (41%) women professionals in the region believe they get fewer career development opportunities than men.

The report, which surveyed 10,000 working professionals across Australia, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, highlights the continued hurdles women face in their career development and its implications for society.

10′000 Hours | DigitalVision | Getty Images

Indeed, while seven in 10 of those surveyed said they believe gender equality is important for a fair society, four in 10 said they think it is impossible to achieve because of fundamental differences between men and women.

Businesses and governments have been battling that narrative. After all, the economics speak for themselves: Increased female employment rates could increase OECD countries’ gross domestic product by $6 trillion.

Yet, gender equality is still not a top 10 priority for 70% of organizations, according to IBM’s new “Women, leadership and missed opportunities” report. In fact, it found that the number of women in senior leadership positions has barely changed in the past two years, and there are today fewer women in the pipeline to fill executive roles than in 2019.

The pandemic has only exacerbated those shortcomings.

With women said to be more adversely affected by the pandemic, PwC’s 2021 Women in Work Index found that progress for women could be back at 2017 levels by the end of the year. That’s due in large part to the disproportionate burden of childcare that falls on women, with mothers now spending an average of 31 hours per week on caregiving duties — almost equivalent to another full-time job.

Still, there are important steps businesses and individuals can take to ease that burden.

What women can do to beat career hurdles

LinkedIn’s vice president of talent and learning solutions, Feon Ang, advised women to be clear about their ambitions and the professional goals they wish to achieve.

“It’s really important to understand your personal strengths and your passion,” she told CNBC Make It.

For Ang, that was “connecting the dots around what’s happening externally and how it affects your career.” In 1997, noticing that “everyone was talking about YK2″ (the year 2000), she embarked on a career in tech. In 2013, seeing the hype around social media, she joined LinkedIn.

Feon Ang, LinkedIn's vice president of talent and learning solutions for Asia Pacific.
Feon Ang, LinkedIn’s vice president of talent and learning solutions for Asia Pacific.
LinkedIn

After identifying those goals, women should be open about them and make it clear to business leaders where they want to go, she said. An advocate or sponsor can help with that, acting as a representative or backer among other senior figures.

“More than just mentoring you, find people that sponsor you, someone that will advocate for you to move forward,” said Ang.

“Of course, you have to do a good job because no leader will advocate for you if not. You also have to show your ability to grow and be open-minded. That constant reskilling is important for everyone, be it, men or women,” she added.

What bosses can do to close the gender gap

In a blog post, Ang also outlined tangible steps bosses and organizations can take to bring about greater equality in the workplace.

  1. Lead conversations around diversity and inclusion — According to LinkedIn’s data, less than one-quarter (23%) of working professionals in Asia-Pacific strongly agree that gender diversity is a priority for their organization. Organizations and managers can shift that narrative by running diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops, and making use of free online training courses.
  2. Boost the number of women in leadership roles — On average in organizations in Asia-Pacific, women comprise only 39% of the workforce. Among women leaders, that number is even lower, at 30% and below. Companies can narrow that disparity by introducing female management quotas and leadership pipelines for promising young talent.
  3. Establish family-friendly policies and flexibility schemes — Almost half (45%) of women in Asia-Pacific said that managing familial responsibilities often comes in the way of their career development. Organizations can ease that burden by implementing supportive policies to give parents and caregivers extra time and flexibility when needed.
  4. Launch mentoring programs and community groups — Lack of career guidance and support ranked as one of the top three hurdles for professional women in Asia-Pacific, according to LinkedIn’s study. Professional networking groups and mentoring programs can help address that gap, allowing for problem sharing and solving within supportive circles.
  5. Help women gain new skills and seek out opportunities — To get ahead, women need access to relevant knowledge and experience, yet lack of skills ranked as one of the major barriers holding women back. Companies can help close that gap by investing in regular learning and development programs to help women stay up-to-date as they move forward in their careers.

“There is strength in numbers,” Ang said. “When more organizations come together, we can do more to help bring equitable recovery for all. It always starts with one small step — from encouraging open conversations on diversity and equality, and advocating for practical initiatives from flexible working hours to mentoring programs.”