Pandemic puts focus on bias at home

The distinction between home life and work life has blurred. It will become less and less possible to talk about gender equality “at work” without also bringing in gender equality at home, and in society. Lily Zheng, Organizational Consultant, DEI Changemaker and Author on the challenges that the pandemic has thrown up for the gender equality movement.

In what ways the lockdown was equal and unequal when it comes to Gender Equality at work?

Like any other widespread change in the status quo, the Covid-19 lockdown exacerbated existing gender issues in the home and workplace. In a healthcare industry that is globally 70% women, the lack of Personal Protective Equipment is a gender issue. The fact that many can’t leave their homes has led to a spike in domestic violence cases around the world. The disproportionate caregiving burden on women who are expected to deal with the lack of childcare and schooling is one of the largest sources of inequality made worse by Covid-19. As a result of these added household demands, the American workday has ballooned by 40%, or 3 hours a day, with much of this burden placed on working women, especially parents. All of these are indirect factors that have hurt gender equality at work. As for direct factors, workplace discrimination on the job, with promotions, and in hiring have risen for women, especially women with other marginalized identities (LGBTQ+ women, women of colour, disabled women, etc.).

How has this pandemic affected the course of the Gender Equality movement?

The distinction between home life and work life has blurred. It will become less and less possible to talk about gender equality “at work” without also bringing in gender equality at home, and in society. For some women who have succeeded in the workplace by not talking about their home situation or parental status, this will be a big change. It’s my hope that the gender equality movement will recognize that equality won’t happen by asking women to empower themselves at the individual level, and refocus its efforts to create equitable workplaces and societies.

Global corporations are increasingly talking about allowing their employees to work from home. How will this impact women?

Employees are already working from home, and while many will return to offices after this pandemic ends, companies will likely offer the option to remain working from home. When we’ve returned to a semblance of normalcy, I think the impact on women will depend largely on access to childcare – women without it will continue to be overworked and marginalized for caretaking during the work day. Women with it, provided that workplaces implement an effective structure and expectations for working from home, will see many of the benefits that WFH provides for productivity and flexibility.

Will the pandemic test an organization’s resolve in achieving Gender Equality? What are the opportunities and challenges for the same.

Absolutely, especially for companies that were never fully bought in to the need for gender equality and were simply paying it lip service. These are the companies that have cut their diversity, equity, and inclusion budgets and are pushing their employees to be as productive as possible even as we all are forced to cope with a crisis.

Challenges: 

  • Responding to financial pressure by cutting programs and initiatives made to benefit gender equality
  • Focusing on productivity at all costs and overworking employees, hurting employees of colour and women the most
  • Being less thoughtful about unconscious bias and allowing bias to influence hiring / firing decisions. Significant research demonstrates that in times of crisis, marginalized groups are the first targeted to be laid off. 

Opportunities: 

  • Responding to financial pressure by optimizing processes and focusing on preserving employee engagement, esp. from women and minorities
  • Investing in diversity initiatives to allow for continued innovation and adaption amid the crisis. Keeping diversity in mind as the organization figures out its crisis communications, customer relations, and WFH shift. (See:  https://hbr.org/2020/05/adapt-your-di-efforts-to-the-reality-of-the-crisis)

What are the red flags that signal trouble for the movement?

We need to be careful not to go back to business as usual. Additionally, we need to be mindful that the challenges faced by women right now aren’t the same for all women – we can’t just advocate for wealthy, privileged women when the challenges faced by women of colour, disabled women, LGBTQ+ women, homeless women, undocumented women, etc. are more severe. We also need to move away from individualist approaches toward more systems-based advocacy. That means designing new policies, practices, and initiatives (instead of simply “empowering” women to improve themselves), and doing so with more marginalized groups in mind.

 

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