Crisis could reverse gender progress

Companies must create workplace structures and schedules that are conducive to enabling female and male employees to effectively contribute to their jobs while also successfully managing their family responsibilities. Dr. Sarah Degnan Kambou is the President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), where she focuses on realizing women’s empowerment and gender equality to alleviate poverty worldwide. 

In what ways has the pandemic lockdown impacted Gender Equality at work?

The COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women, girls, LGBTQIA+ and vulnerable populations. In the case of India, the lockdown and work-from-home scenarios have had a series of detrimental and compounding effects on women and girls. These include increased or added responsibilities to provide care (e.g. cooking, cleaning, taking care of elderly and children); decreased mobility, control over resources, and access to healthcare; greater risk of intimidation and violence at home; and loss of livelihoods or educational opportunities.

Social distancing can be afforded and exercised by those who are more privileged, while disproportionately and negatively impacting populations like migrants and daily workers – of which women and girls face the brunt of discrimination and violence. For the women who are considered essential frontline workers (e.g. nurses and grocery store employees), the impact is further compounded, with social distancing being limited for them. Women employed by organizations that can facilitate working from home face their own challenges of balancing work with heightened care duties or competing with other family members for the space and resources needed to work from home.

Has this pandemic affected the course of the Gender Equality movement?

The pandemic, like other crises and social shocks throughout history, is exacerbating issues that the gender equality movement has been working on for decades. We know that women and girls will feel the full weight of the structural inequalities intensified by COVID-19, and that this crisis could reverse progress made by the gender equality movement – if important steps are not taken to correct systemic inequities.

There is an opportunity to come together to define new paths forward. For example, as care obligations are thrust into the spotlight, we have the possibility of creating new norms around distribution of work in the home and flexible work arrangements. There are opportunities to redefine economic models and place the care economy at the center. And above all, there is an opportunity to ensure that the voices and perspectives of women, girls, and others marginalized by ingrained inequalities are integrated in both the planning and implementation of recovery strategies.

How will the move to Work From Home impact women?

As mentioned above, a transition to work-from-home policies can bring both challenges and benefits to women. One area that research finds is important for creating a gender equitable workplace environment is related to flexible work policies. While previously companies may have felt that there were limitations on the types of job arrangements that would be effective, COVID-19 has torn down these assumptions, showing us that a range of flexible hours and remote work is possible. Companies should use this knowledge to create workplace structures and schedules that are conducive to enabling female and male employees to effectively contribute to their jobs while also successfully managing their family responsibilities.

For some companies that were investing in measures to promote gender equality, newly narrow profit margins may cause them to reprioritize these investments. They may switch focus away from efforts to enhance employee well being in order to prioritize initiatives that are necessary for financial sustainability. While this is understandable, one of our goals is to remind companies that continued investments in worker well being that are backed by business data—such as paying fair wages, preventing and responding to sexual harassment, and providing support for balancing family and work—ultimately make companies more sustainable.

Will the pandemic will test an organization’s resolve in achieving Gender Equality? 

The pandemic represents a new unknown that organizations are being forced to grapple with. There are incredible challenges for organizations with respect to finding new ways to carry out projects, conduct research, and ensure that our global partners have the resources needed to thrive in this current context and beyond.

On the flip side, we have an obligation and an opportunity to come together in deeper solidarity as a sector, dig into the data we have available to us, and put forward new solutions and tools that work for women and girls. At ICRW, we are developing a layered research and policy agenda that will gather evidence and experience from the global, regional and national levels, as well as from communities, on how the pandemic is affecting women, girls and other vulnerable populations. We are assessing what elements of the response are effectively mitigating impact and fostering equity, and which elements are making matters worse for vulnerable people. As data comes in, we will be quickly turning our findings into blogs, briefs and policy recommendations, which will be shared through our networks to inform programming and policy.