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Has the pandemic set back gender equality?

Mar 05, 2021

While much progress in gender equality and diversity and inclusion has been made in recent years, the impacts of COVID-19 threaten to undo all that hard work. Mark Fenton explains.

As we experience our restricted lifestyle due to the pandemic, I have been reflecting on what impact this crisis is having on gender equality and diversity and inclusion (D&I). And I am worried. Will our new, abnormal future be an optimistic beacon of progressive inclusion and equal representation, or does it risk taking us back to a more traditional and less inclusive past?

The world is not equal for men and women. We know that. Huge disparities exist around the world, not just in terms of workplace remuneration and working conditions, but also across access to professional development, sponsorship, and even basic education. Nevertheless, in many countries, significant progress has been made.

In the UK, for example, a record number of women are in the workplace – 72.4% at the end of 2019. Furthermore, The Financial Times reported in October 2019 that the proportion of women on the boards of the UK’s most valuable 350 public companies exceeded 30% for the first time, having risen more than three-fold since 2010.

Both men and women have had to organise their lives to support dual career families. Most organisations have made at least some progress towards supportive technology, policies, benefits and practices that enable more flexible models to ensure that every employee can be more effective and feel more included. A growing suite of empirical, global research now shows that this corporate strategy of D&I leads to significant, measurable impact on gender equality and on bottom-line performance. McKinsey recently reported on a global analysis of over 1,000 large companies which demonstrated that those companies with the most gender diversity are 48% more likely to have above-average profitability as compared to the least gender diverse organisations.

In recent years, society has embraced a professional outsourcing model when it comes to the traditional support roles of childcare, cleaning, food preparation and socialisation. This has freed up many of us to pursue the career and life we desire. This new social model has been lauded as the non-level ground-breaking progress towards a more equal workplace and society at large.

Then COVID-19 appeared, and everything changed.

We live in a new reality of global home-working, social distancing and cocooning. The outsource model is gone – schools and crèches have been shut for months on end and are only now slowly opening up. Restaurants and bars remain boarded up and we are back to a time of self-sufficiency vis-à-vis home schooling, house cleaning, food preparation and general maintenance.

With all these extra tasks, how has society divvied them up? Have we, as self-professed progressive supporters of equality, rationally and fairly allocated the day-to-day running of our home, our family, and our careers? Has the shift towards remote working and the full-armed embrace of tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc., delivered the expected growth in support of women and gender equality in general?

The answer may depend on who you ask. And the reality should disturb you.

There is evidence that society may have taken steps back to a more gender stereotyped and genderised division of labour. Many people report that it is women who are doing most (if not all) of the home-schooling activity, while continuing to do the lion’s share of cooking, cleaning, and the organisation of virtual socialising. This is often while attempting to succeed in a busy corporate role based at the kitchen table.

Us men, on the other hand, have replaced our 8-10 hours in the office with a similar duration on Zoom calls based in the more bespoke environment of the attic office or study. We start early (before the home-schooling day begins) and surface for breaks and mealtimes, or perhaps a fun family activity in the late afternoon/early evening. Yes, it is hard to do our jobs via Zoom, but men have the benefit of supportive practices at home.

Some, maybe even many, may disagree. An interesting article in the New York Times exposed the gap in pandemic-era domestic work. It was reported that while nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling, only 3% of women agree. Furthermore, a third of men with children under 12-years-old claimed to be the person most responsible for housework or for childcare, while women agreeing with either statement did not even register above 2%.

Why? Cultural expectations around roles and responsibilities remain and this crisis, by putting a short-term focus on securing/maintaining income and work opportunities, has allowed these expectations and implicit biases to flourish as women default to juggling – more than ever – schooling and household activity.

We need to address this disparity quickly to avoid taking backward steps in the long journey towards gender equality and a more inclusive society. What this crisis has taught us is that we need to better collaborate as a society and be more inclusive and supportive.

We need to value all the micro-actions that were easily discounted or outsourced before, but which are now viewed as important. Men must continue the spring forward they started and not step back from their modern role in family, work and society.

The future is in our hands. We can emerge as a more connected, equal, and respectful society. Our difference is our strength. How we include these differences and each as a unit (a relationship, a family, a community, a society, a global world) is key to future success, whether individual, corporate or industrial.

Mark Fenton is the Founder of MASF Consulting