Will Our New Abnormal Future End Up Mirroring the Past?
As all of us experience our new, restricted lifestyle within our global Covid-19 pandemic journey, I have been reflecting on what impact this crisis is having (and will have long into the future) on gender equality and Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) in general. 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, to sponsorship and even to 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% as at the end of 2019 – the male rate was 80.6%) and by October 2019, the FT reported 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)
Men and women together, have organised their lives to support dual career families and the majority of 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 Inclusion & Diversity leads to significant, measurable impact on gender equality and on bottom-line performance. Last month McKinsey 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, we have all 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 enforced cocooning (a much more humane term applied by the Irish government compared with the rather stark UK language of ‘social isolation’). The outsource model is gone – schools and creches have been shut for months on end and are only 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 now in our hands how has society divvied up the tasks? 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.
In many discussions with our clients and based on my own personal observations, there is evidence that, in fact, society may have taken steps back to a more gender stereotyped and genderised division of labour. Many people will 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 (e.g. family Zoom calls). This is often while attempting to succeed in a busy corporate role based at the new co-working space previously known as 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 we have the benefit of supportive practices at home.
Some, maybe even many, may disagree. An interesting article in the New York Times last month 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, 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 the ratio of 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.
I believe that we need to address this disparity quickly to avoid taking backward steps in the long-running journey towards gender equality and a more inclusive society. What this crisis has taught us is that we need to collaborate as a society better and be more inclusive and supportive - we are realising this as we re-prioritise our family's health and safety and respect health and policing authorities.
We need to value all the micro-actions that we now see as important that were easily discounted or outsourced before. Men, in particular, must continue the spring forward they started and not step back from their modern role in family, work and society
So, the future is in our hands. We can emerge as a more connected, more equal, and more 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 (individual, corporate and industrial).
Founder of MASF Consulting Ltd and Associate of CSA