Gender equality and the pandemic

Reaching gender equality is only possible if societal norms and expectations change and individuals, organisations as well as governments commit to a new, more inclusive culture. Although we have seen positive changes in recent years, we will have to pay real conscious attention now as well as after the pandemic to ensure this culture shift continues.

Is the pandemic gender-neutral?

Most people who don’t look up specific gender-related research or statistics would probably say that the virus doesn’t differentiate according to gender, and that all the actions taken to fight the virus are gender-neutral. Let’s have a quick look at whether this has been the case.

While this may have been the intention, any worldwide crisis will most negatively affect the poor and the people working in the informal economy. According to various statistics, women are more likely to do temporary and part time work in the informal sector where pay and job security is less certain. They are also less likely to have adequate health insurance.

In less developed countries, the lack of medical services – due to being focused on the pandemic – or the simple lack of these services may affect women’s health more. The impact can be particularly felt in the older generations as women make up the majority of the over 80 population in the world and, therefore, more women may become sick during the pandemic.

I also need to mention the fact that domestic violence is on the rise, and most of it is directed against women. Women are more vulnerable during the lockdown, and at the same time they may not be able to ask for help either because of being trapped in the situation or because the services may not be available.

We know women typically earn less than men in the same household. Therefore, if someone has to give up work to take care of the extra family duties due to the pandemic, it will most likely be the woman who will quit her job. This will lead / has led to job loss for many women. This, combined with future potential job losses due to automation and digitalisation that may also hit women harder, can result in many women being left behind.

Unpaid work distribution – Men’s role in gender equality

In ‘normal times’ women perform a daily average of 4 hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work versus 1 hour and 23 minutes for men. The pandemic has increased this time, and only time will tell how much of the extra burden has fallen on women and how much on men.

Men, perhaps for the first time in history, have been able to fully witness what caring for small children entails. I don’t mean this in any negative way. In many families men leave their homes to work, and children either go to school or are taken care of by their mum or, as in Singapore, often also by the grandparents or the nanny/ helper. This time everyone is forced to be at home, therefore we all are witnessing what everyone else in our home is doing.

Workplace flexibility helps women, but ultimately what we also need is full support from men in terms of bringing up children and caring for the sick as well as housework. Men happy to take up a bigger percentage of household and childcare tasks will have had the chance to do so because of the lockdown, since they were at home. My hope is that even more men will realise how much time and effort caring for others and housework needs and they will increase their contributions. Then, and only then will women have the same choices as men. However there is no ‘one formula’ which would work for each family unit. I believe that there are many ways family members can divide the chores. In any family we may have to make compromises, sometimes even sacrifices. The important thing is that no one feels disadvantaged for a prolonged period of time.

Companies’ role in easing the burden

As in most, if not all societies, women are often the primary caregivers to children, elderly parents as well as other family members in need, many women have had several additional duties during lockdown. These could include juggling work and household chores, and where necessary, also home schooling. While in ‘normal times’ companies may have been able to support these primary caregivers with more flexible work opportunities, this has become very difficult to take advantage of during the lockdown period. Companies should recognise this and offer some relief in terms of time commitment, shift priorities and/or possibly lower the scope of work for their overworked employees. For families there should be new policies introduced, not just for young fathers to take care of their new-born babies but for men (and women) to be able to take extra time when additional family duties require it.

Governments also have to play their part

In addition to individuals stepping up and companies showing caring and concern through concrete actions and policies, government responses, in terms of supporting specific industries, company types, professions, etc. are also playing a big role in how many jobs are lost and kept in the respective economies.

We cannot achieve equality as long as women do most of the unpaid work and don’t get recognition for it as value-adding contribution to their country’s as well as the world economy. One positive outcome of the pandemic could be that due to increased awareness, unpaid care and household work could gain more respect and recognition on both the individual level and hopefully with economists who will now be more inclined to include these in the measurements they use for country outputs (GDP, which is the most widely used, does not include any unpaid work).

The future of work: Remote work and flexible work arrangements

Companies, as well as individual managers, will have seen that virtual/remote work can also be effective. The biggest opportunity resulting from the pandemic therefore will most likely be the more wide-spread introduction of flexible work arrangements as well as the creation of more part time and shared jobs. Research shows that employees all over the world regardless of gender, age or nationality would like to have more flexibility. Thus everyone will benefit, but women with children or other family obligations will perhaps benefit the most. Other groups, e.g. younger generations also want more flexibility; however, while for them this means they can arrange their life activities according to their preferences, for women it may create a completely new possibility: they can now work. As a result more women will be able to join the workforce, and work and family duties could become more manageable. This will also allow both women AND men to share unpaid care and home duties. Of course, this will still be more challenging for those women who are, for example, single mothers or give up work because of a sick or elderly family member.

The journey to Gender Equality

Will gender equality get as much attention as it should? I hope that the pandemic has simply stalled the journey for a little while. Most things in the world have slowed down or stopped, and the journey toward gender equality is no exception. While I hear from many of our clients that they want to make sure diversity and inclusion stays on their agenda, not much real investment seems to be put behind this at the moment.

There is a potential danger that the policies and practices which need to be put in place will be put on hold. Hopefully not forgotten, but the process could slow down further. I say further because according to the 2020 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report we’ll need about a century to reach overall gender equality and 257 years to close the Economic Participation and Opportunity Gap if we continue progressing at the same pace as we have over the past few years. This stop in 2020 could cost gender equality a number of years of delay.

We need conscious efforts in terms of concrete actions and policies on all levels, be it the individual, organisation, or country to ensure that the gender equality journey continues. We need more equally gender-balanced leadership teams, and it will take a lot of mindfulness, dedicated leadership and targeted interventions to move forward at a reasonable pace.

Dr Zsuzsanna Tungli is the Managing Partner at Singapore-based Developing Global Leaders, a leadership development company focusing on inclusive, globally competent and responsible leadership.