The much-anticipated “new normal” should not turn out to be a step back for women in the workplace
COVID-19, and particularly the response to it, constitutes a massive crisis. The trouble is that during times of crisis it’s easy to jettison things we formerly thought were important in the name of survival: we run a real risk that the “new normal” could come to mean fewer personal liberties, a permanently constrained economy and a significant downgrading of the women’s agenda to obtain proper representivity and recognition in the workplace.
The danger that the women’s agenda takes a back seat in the post-COVID-19 world might seem like a lesser matter but actually it’s not. It intersects with concerns about personal liberty in the most fundamental way as well as with the health of the economy.
Women have a massive contribution to make to the economy, and thus to everybody’s wellbeing. If the women’s agenda is side-lined, we all suffer—and it’s clear that the economy will need all the help it can get to recover from the body blow of the extended lockdown and the virtual cessation of global trade.
Why the women’s agenda makes business and economic sense
The issue about women’s role in driving economic growth and creating profitable companies has been highlighted extebsively. Since McKinsey’s ground-breaking 2007 study,  which linked gender balance and financial performance, women’s economic role has been accepted as a legitimate business strategy.
Perhaps nothing spells out the economic benefits inherent in women’s contribution to corporate profits better than the fact that investment funds are beginning to use gender diversity as an indicator when it comes to assessing how investment worthy a company is.
Another McKinsey study found that the US could add $2.1 trillion in GDP in 2025 if all US states achieve similarly high levels of gender parity—this is 10% increase in the expected GDP (obviously before the impact of COVID-19). This GDP growth would in turn generate an additional 6.4 million jobs.
The risks to the women’s agenda posed by COVID-19
First, and perhaps most fundamental of all, it appears that women have suffered more from job losses than men. This stems from the fact that women are overrepresented in jobs that are low paid or part time in sectors like leisure and hospitality, education and health and the like. In America, 20.5 million jobs were lost during March and April 2020 alone. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up 49% of the overall US workforce but accounted for 55% of job losses in April, thus “erasing a decade of substantial job gains for women nationwide”.
And, as the United Nations points out, the situation is much worse in developing economies where around 70% of female employment is in the informal sector, which is least likely to be receiving government support during the crisis, and most affected by social-distancing regulations.
A related risk is that promotions and accelerated training aimed specifically at empowering women within corporates and strengthening gender diversity might be put on hold. In the short term, this decision makes sense, but as companies come to terms with the new working arrangements, they should not lose sight of these programmes.
A second risk relates to the shift to working from home. This is naturally playing havoc with work/ life balance, and there is plenty of evidence to back up what we all know: women already shoulder more of the burden of household management and childcare than their male partners. Women are sleeping less in order to find time to get all the work and house-care done; and their ability to conduct themselves professionally during meetings is much more impaired.
Unsurprisingly, a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that women are suffering more stress than men during the COVID-19 emergency.
All of this feeds into the subtle set of cues and learned behaviours that set women back. One of these is the reversion to traditional gender roles, of course, but a more insidious one is the “confirmation” that women really do put family before career. This belief, says one commentator, means that career-conscious women downplay their family roles at work in order to demonstrate they do not have divided loyalties, and are as ambitious and determined to succeed as male peers.
In the home-working situation, women need to negotiate a sustainable and equitable distribution of household and childcare tasks with their partners as soon as possible, rather than taking the path of least resistance.
What can companies do?
Now that companies are stabilising somewhat, it’s time for them to take stock of the possible impacts of this crisis on many of their strategic initiatives, of which empowering women should be (and usually is) one. As noted above, any specific programmes they have put on hold should be revisited and, if necessary, re-envisaged for the realities of remote working and social distancing.
Unfortunately, retrenchments and job losses may be necessary. HR professionals should do everything in their power to ensure that due weight is given to considerations of gender parity when these difficult decisions are being made.
Perhaps the best antidote to the threats to women posed by COVID-19 is the one that has always fuelled much of the progress towards female empowerment: the support of like-minded women. Companies can encourage the formation of virtual support groups within the organisation for their women (and other minorities) during this period. They can also provide links to external support and mentorship groups and platforms.
Advancing the women’s agenda has always made good sense, both commercially and morally. Let’s ensure that the progress the corporate world has made towards achieving its goals are not one of the casualties of COVID-19.
 McKinsey & Co, Women Matter. Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver (October 2007), available at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/the-power-of-parity-advancing-womens-equality-in-the-united-states.  McKinsey Global Instittute, “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in the United States”, available at https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Employment%20and%20Growth/The%20power%20of%20parity%20Advancing%20womens%20equality%20in%20the%20United%20States/MGI-Power-of-Parity-in-US-Executive-briefing.ashx.  Brittany Chambers, “How The Coronavirus Has Resulted In The Highest Job Loss For Women: Erasing A Decade Of Progress”, Forbes (12 May 2020), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/brittanychambers/2020/05/12/how-the-coronavirus-has-resulted-in-the-highest-job-loss-for-women-erasing-a-decade-of-progress/#4cb0add6192a.  United Nations, “Policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women” (9 April 2020), available at https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf.  Liz Hamel and Alina Salganicoff, “Is There a Widening Gender Gap in Coronavirus Stress?”, Kaiser Family Foundation (6 April 2020), available at https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-policy-watch/is-there-widening-gender-gap-in-coronavirus-stress/.  Jenny M Hoobler, “Gender equality gets a boost from the ‘new normal’”, Daily Maverick (11 May 2020), available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-11-gender-equality-gets-a-boost-from-the-new-normal.