Both sobering and fascinating - we’re watching in real time the regressive effects of the pandemic on gender parity. Social distancing measures, school closures and overburdened health systems have put an increased demand on families, to balance full time childcare and paid work.

But studies show that it is women who are by far the most affected. At an alarming rate, we’re seeing women stepping back from their professional roles to step up their roles as carers and teachers in the home. McKinsey’s Annual Women in Work Report and the UNWomen.org, make for sombre reading. Stats reveal that women make up just 39% of global employment, but at the time of writing, account for 54% of overall job losses… enter 2021’s likely new word to the Dictionary: She-cession; 1. an economic downturn where job and income losses disproportionately affect women more than men.

The reasons for this do not require much imagination. Among others, including lower paid roles, less job security and access to flexible working, is that existing gender norms have put the increased demand for unpaid childcare and domestic work largely on women. According to UNWomen.org, pre-pandemic women in two person heterosexual households undertook around three times more domestic and unpaid work than their male counterparts, with an estimate that this has now at least doubled.

In a nutshell, women are having to prioritise their families over their careers, because something has to give. And this is having a ripple effect on our society.  

Reshaping the narrative 

Economic implications are just one example. McKinsey stats suggest that having women equally represented in the workplace would be transformational for economies across the world. By advancing gender equality now, it’s forecasted that $13 trillion could be added to the global economy.

Now that’s a number many of us will struggle to compute, but let’s take it as ‘a lot’ yet our headlines still paint the ‘She-cession’ as a problem for women, citing how the pandemic is setting us back decades. The reality however, is that the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on women could set our economies and society, back even further.

Addressing these subtle, yet purposeful shifts can start to move conversations in a more helpful direction, leading us to explore the opportunities for society, should women be fully allowed to partake in the economy.

Some principles from the UN

But whilst talk is good, action is better. It’s been a tough year for most, but the chaos of the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity for real change, highlighting broken systems and outdated attitudes. Though systemic change lies in more progressive government policies, business has a huge role to play in setting standards and getting the right conversations on the table.

The UN Global Compact have a brilliant set of pragmatic principles businesses can sign up to, to help empower women in times of crisis. In first acknowledging the imbalance, they state, ‘…The current situation provides a chance to disrupt gender stereotypes, change traditional narratives, and show that leadership and decision-making, household chores, and caring for and teaching children, can and should be, shared responsibilities.’ Hear hear UN!

Three steps forward

So, having spent the last 6 months consulting with a very reliable and brilliant group of women and men on this topic, many floundering to keep their heads above water, we believe there are 3 core things you can do as a leader to help shift gender norms in your business (alongside equal pay, paid pa/maternity, female leaders and family friendly policies, of course): 

  1. Talk to the men in your organisation about their situation at home and how you can help them share the caring load with their partners. Start with your managers and suggest they do the same with their teams.
  2. Actively get your male parent leaders to explore shared paternity leave and reduce their hours to balance childcare commitments - and shout it from the rooftops. Start to normalise a more equal share of care responsibilities.
  3. Focus on the benefits of distributed paid and unpaid work in your communications. It’s proven that when men aren’t the sole breadwinners, we all benefit - from better male mental health, to more stable finances and reduced poverty.

There’s a strong argument for sharing the load, but to achieve it we need to bring men into the conversation.

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