As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools closed and families were left to their own devices to manage the household. Women took up the lion share of this additional work. Employees now are being urged to go back to work so businesses and the economy can revive, but with the reopening of schools lagging behind, it’s mostly men returning. Governments, employers, women and men, will have to act decisively to keep women in the workforce post-corona and avoid reversing decades of progress on gender equality.
The pandemic has divided the ‘home working’ population roughly in two groups; those with kids under the age of 16, and those without. While those without kids have reported some definite benefits of their new working situation (such as the lack of commute and increased flexibility), those juggling full-time jobs with increased child care responsibilities rightly have a harder time noticing the plus-side as they are working several hours more a day than before the crisis hit.
Both groups might have had additional housework on their to do list, as cleaners were no longer allowed to enter the house, however this wasn’t even remotely as disruptive to home working as the need to provide day-care or supervise school-work. In many cases women carried the weight, both in taking on the additional house chores and home-schooling the kids. Ironically, women also disproportionately fill the jobs, such as day-care provider and cleaner, which were lost in the process. So double-hit for women.
Employees are being encouraged to return to work if they cannot work from home, but without schools fully reopened, this means that mainly men return. Women more often are given way for their partner to go back, with many reducing their working hours to reconcile with care work, and some not returning at all. According to a recent United Nations study, the COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing decades of progress on gender equality in the workforce.
Governments can play a big role in ensuring this doesn’t happen, and the first step in doing so, will be to ensure that half of those shaping the strategies for recovery are women. Decisions related to child care, reopening of schools but also progressing policies on shared parental leave and reassessing how unpaid work contributes to GDP calculations will play an important role in how gender equality pans out post-corona. Taking these decisions without women round the table will likely be detrimental for the gender agenda.
Employers too have an important role to play. Many have given their employees more trust and more flexibility to deal with this unprecedented situation. It looks like continuation of these policies will be needed, especially for women, for some time and ideally indefinitely. Businesses, likewise governments, can mitigate losing part of their female workforce by ensuring women are in the driving seat when setting out return-to-the-office strategies. In addition, they should consider results over time spent in promotion decisions, and could offer job-share positions, especially at management level, to ensure women are able to progress in their careers even in the current circumstances.
Finally, men and women can progress the battle (figuratively speaking) for gender equality at home, as there will be no such thing as gender equality at work, until it is reached in our very homes first. Men can increase their efforts to do their fair share, this is the best support they can give to progress their partner’s career. Women, can continue to bring up their needs, even when it leads to discussion and discontent at times. We all need to come together and act decisively, for all those women who love their families very much, yet would feel at great loss if they’d have to give up their jobs for them.
First featured in IQ Business Magazine in July 2020