In my recent article here, I raised concerns about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and their careers. Since then, a number of surveys and reports indicate that the gender divide is worsening as the pandemic continues.
There are penalties that are being exacerbated by responses to the pandemic. Knowing how to avoid them is not the hard part, getting action to avoid them is.
According to these reports there are three key penalties women need to be aware of right now.
Women’s perceived lack of fit for leadership roles
Like many women, I found Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem ‘I am woman, I am invincible’ a compelling call to action and mourn her recent death. However, it is insupportable that anyone should think that feeling invincible is enough. There’s no shortage of women feeling, being and doing invincible.
Women shouldn’t have to be invincible, they should have to be present – at the top table, involved in decision making about COVID-19 economic and social impacts, and recovery strategies. The penalties women are experiencing aren’t caused by the pandemic itself, but by the responses to it that ignore their needs – by not being sufficiently present at the decision-making table, women’s needs are deprioritised.
And it’s not just that women are not seen as leadership material, it’s also that they’re seen to be so good at followership and support roles that we want to keep them there. The role of an ideal follower is more strongly associated with being kind, helpful and focused on others, a perfect match for stereotypes about women.
The ‘motherhood’ penalty
The work/family narrative and most flexible work policies are predicated on the drive to long working hours. Organisations that perpetuate the work/family conflict accept gender role stereotypes which in turn maintain the presumption that women’s primary responsibility is caring for their families. It becomes inevitable that their careers come second.
People assume that women don’t want to work the long hours that continue to be required in leadership roles. And this is despite the fact that long hours not only don’t increase productivity, they rob you of recovery and leisure time.
During COVID-19, social isolation has reduced access to childcare and support networks, and school from home has disproportionately disadvantaged women.
In the latest in McKinsey & Company’s ‘Women in the Workplace’ reports, almost one-quarter of women in the US are considering leaving the workforce (either temporarily or permanently) because of the pandemic’s impact on them.
Let’s be clear: the motherhood penalty is not really about motherhood – these same penalties are experienced by women without children.
For as long as the social expectation remains that women be primary caregivers in families, any organisation that expects long work hours will hold back women’s careers. To focus at the core of the problem means that workload expectations must be addressed.
And to prevent a reversal of gains made in the workforce over the past 40 years, prioritise supporting women in your network so that leaving doesn’t need to be their only option.
Women’s job security and economic freedom is less important than men’s
Women’s unemployment has increased over the past 30 years and during the pandemic has risen to the point where there are now more Australian women than men registered as unemployed. That trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with women’s jobs declining by 8.1% and men’s by 6.2%.
The UN COVID Global Gender Response Tracker shows that Australia has no measures to address women’s economic security, which is a gross oversight. The underlying assumption is that women’s economic needs will be met by their husbands.
Women experience disproportionate penalties at the top of organisations, in the middle of their careers, and when they are in the lowest-paid, most precarious jobs. The intertwined narratives that women don’t fit in leadership and they are responsible for and should sacrifice their careers for caregiving is again exposed.
It should be intolerable to think that the gains made for gender equality since Helen Reddy’s anthem will be eroded by the impact of COVID-19, but the signs are ominous.