Opinionista Jackie Carroll 6 August 2020

Covid-19 threatens to undo gains in gender equality – female leadership might be the answer

Almost everyone has been affected by Covid-19 in one way or another, but the impact on working women in heterosexual relationships has been that much more severe than on their partners. For single mothers, the situation has been even worse.

The long-term ripple effects of Covid-19 are going to be felt for years to come: in the global economic fallout, in the impact on schooling systems and, potentially, in the partial or even permanent return of women to the home. If the demands that are being made on women during this time are not addressed, it’s possible that many will be forced to give up their professional lives, undoing decades of progress.

Businesses have a responsibility to prevent this regression. One of the most effective ways of doing so is by investing in and supporting their female employees, and by actively nurturing female leadership. The deliberate and meaningful empowerment of women might be the only vaccine to the damage Covid-19 is causing to gender equity.

If you’d emailed Khara Jabola-Carolus, the Executive Director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, you would likely have received the following auto response:

“Due to patriarchy, I am behind on emails. I hope to respond to your message soon but, like many women, I am working full-time while tending to an infant and toddler full-time. According to the Washington Post, the average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time for parents during Covid-19 is three minutes, 24 seconds.”

She provides a phone number for urgent queries and signs off politely.

Jabola-Carolus is, as she says, one of many. While almost everyone has been affected by Covid-19 in one way or another, the impact on working women in heterosexual relationships has been that much more severe than on their partners. Even though both men and women are spending more time on housework, and childcare than they were before Covid-19 hit, women are still shouldering the lion’s share.

A New York Times poll found that 70% of women have been fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, 66% have been fully or mostly responsible for childcare and 80% are spending more time homeschooling their children than their male partners. This is on top of the demands of their professional lives, the adjustments they have had to make to using new technologies and processes, and the pandemic’s immense mental, emotional and financial toll.

Of course, for single mothers, the situation has been even worse.

As employers look for ways to support their teams during the pandemic, having an awareness and understanding of the experiences of women, and implementing solutions to support these experiences, is critical. Employers need to remember that a gender-diverse employee base, and especially the equal representation of women and men at board and executive level, has always made for more adaptable and resilient businesses. And since adaptability and resilience are the cornerstones of Covid-19 survival, gender diversity is more essential than ever before.

To better support female employees and leaders, businesses need to:

  • Include women in all planning and decision-making: Always, and especially during Covid-19, women need to be part of the decisions made on company policies and processes. This helps to ensure that women’s circumstances and needs are always considered.
  • Ease home-based responsibilities: Flexible working hours, paid sick and family leave, and equal maternity and paternity leave all help to give women the support they need to balance and manage their professional and personal lives.
  • Provide necessary training: Businesses need to promote the empowerment of women in the workplace by giving them access to training opportunities. Leadership courses help to equip employees with the skills and expertise required to lead, and to advance their companies – amid crises and beyond.

During Covid-19, businesses that implement meaningful and effective systems that support, and empower women are likely to advance gender equality, rather than contribute to its decline.

Adopting flexible, gender-inclusive practices may ensure that women not only retain their professional roles during this time, but that, against all odds, they succeed. What’s more, such practices may dismantle age-old systems that place undue domestic responsibility on women in the first place, and so promote a future that is truly gender equitable.

It’s been disruptive, yes, but in its highlighting of deep-rooted inequalities, Covid-19 offers opportunity for change as well. DM

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