Women at risk of becoming collateral damage

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up many challenges for women and this also translates into how the Gender Equality at Workplaces unfolds in the years to come. Fiona Nott, Chief Executive Officer at Hong Kong-based The Women’s Foundation shared her views with AsiaBizToday.

Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Gender Equality at Workplace

For men and women alike, COVID-19 has upended nearly every aspect of our daily lives from our basic necessities and social interactions to education, jobs and the economy. We have all had to unexpectedly adjust and adapt to new ways of working – most of us remotely, some of us for the first time –all while managing the fear and general malaise that accompanied the pandemic.

However, there are some aspects of remote working life that have affected women more deeply than men. Since the pandemic, women have disproportionately taken up the role of primary carer and are looking after children or elderly family members, without the usual support from schools or care centres in addition to doing household chores. They are continuing with paid work and simultaneously managing their usual, unpaid domestic workload. For single parents, the majority of whom are women, the mental and physical toll is much higher.

Affect on the Gender Equality movement

On the whole, we are beginning to see unprecedented changes to the status quo. There is a collective upswell in appreciation for essential workers. Not just for health service workers, but also supermarket workers, cleaners and other low-income jobs that are disproportionately held by women and whose voices and needs have often been sidelined from conversations and policies.  We have seen a spotlight on pervasive and under-discussed issues disproportionately affecting women like the digital gap and sexual & domestic violence as well as open conversations on mental health. Overall, we are having deeper conversations around equality, gender equality, and what we value as a society. We must translate these conversations into changes that can create a new normal.

Working from home and women

Remote working has accelerated because of COVID-19, particularly in economies like Hong Kong where a work culture of presenteeism and face time is ingrained. Flexible working around our home life responsibilities is now expected and accommodated. While the current work from home measures are enforced, it has opened up a new trust and acceptance on the part of employers and employees which must translate to longer term flexible working arrangements – this is good news for working parents and caregivers, the majority of whom are women.

Corporate response towards Gender Equality at work

There are several positives that have emerged from remote work and social distancing measures. The tendency of men to speak up over their female colleagues during meetings is much harder to do virtually. The prolonged work from home measures may mean men feel more comfortable to ask for more flexible working opportunities post COVID.

But there is a danger of women becoming collateral damage in this pandemic.  While virtual meetings and events have the power to minimise some of the micro-inequities that undermine women in the office, digital spaces can also promote exclusion. Private side conversations during meetings or informal virtual social events can exacerbate gender disparities.

Another area of concern is child and elder care. School and elder centre closures may well extend beyond work from home measures so employers need to be conscious that this may impact their female employees harder than their male employees, and have appropriate policies and accommodations in place so that this doesn’t adversely impact women’s career performance or progression.

Certain industries hit hardest by the pandemic – particularly aviation, F&B, tourism, and hospitality – will have to make some difficult decisions in terms of retentions and layoffs in the next few months. These industries are all female dominated and so gender needs to be at the centre of how organisations respond and plan for recovery.

Trouble brewing for the GDI movement

Apathy. Inertia. Silence. These are three concerning factors that negatively impact gender equality.  But COVID-19 presents us with a rare opportunity to transform how we approach normalcy – education, jobs, relationships, and gender equality and we are starting to have more open conversations on these issues. We need to recognise the shifts that are occurring with this crisis and seize the opportunities for new and equitable solutions to recreate our future and transform our city.