There have been many conversations around how the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity for a cultural reset and will change not only the way we work, but the fundamental ways in which we live our lives. Some of these changes will inevitably be for the better, but the pandemic also creates risk for important progress that society has made.
I’ve spent the past several years advocating for greater gender equality at work, and I’m concerned about not losing momentum. We already know that the negative impacts of the pandemic will be worse for women than men, mainly due to household and childcare responsibilities falling more on women than men and women losing their jobs more frequently, but as we look to come out on the other side of this crisis, workplaces can go one of two very different ways.
Business as usual creates missed opportunity
The first way will be to adjust health and safety practices—which should be the bare minimum for every company—and go back to operating in relatively the same manner as before the coronavirus outbreak. Perhaps employees will now be allowed to work remotely, but aside from a few minor changes, things will look pretty similar to the way they once were. Unfortunately, because of the negative impact this pandemic will have on women’s careers, most companies’ new realities will include fewer women.
A survey from Syndio found that 14% of women were considering quitting their jobs because of their increased family demands. In addition, new obstacles such as the discovery that women are being talked over and are unable to get a word in during Zoom meeting, have only brought in-person workplace inequalities to the remote workforce. And that’s only if women can even make it to their Zoom meetings, as they’ve often had to make more sacrifices to handle caregiving and household responsibilities than their partners. The Motherhood Penalty often places moms at a lower earning level than dads, so when couples have to decide whose career to put first, they choose the individual who makes more money, which is usually the dad. Unless employers are actively working now to retain the women in their company, they may lose some of their top talent in the coming months.
Evaluate to create intentional change
The second way will be to critically evaluate every practice and aspect of the business to determine a more equal and inclusive approach to better suit every employee. And if this sounds hard to do, it’s because it is.
To think carefully about every company process will take an immense amount of effort, but it will ultimately create a more equal, diverse, and successful business in the end. According to research from Great Place to Work, publicly traded companies with inclusive workplaces thrived before, during, and after the Great Recession, meaning when women actively participate in the labor force the economy thrives, so retaining a diverse employee population is extremely important for success. And though this pandemic will force companies to change, it also gives them a major opportunity to redesign company practices to be more inclusive.
And let’s be honest, workplaces were not designed for women, or even with women in mind, because they started from practices that existed when women were participating in the workforce in smaller numbers than men. Countless studies have shown that everything about workplaces, from something as subtle as the office temperature to the well-documented pay gap, and data suggesting that men promote more men and women promote more women (thus continuing a vicious cycle that makes it even more difficult for women to receive promotions), make life for a woman in the workplace an uphill battle.
How to create new opportunities
So, if you choose the second option of being very intentional about creating a better, more inclusive workplace, where do you start? The World Economic Forum recommends beginning with “gender budgeting,” which is when you prepare or analyze a budget and/or resources from a gender perspective, to help achieve worldwide gender equality. The goal is to ensure that resources are distributed equally and aims to account for disadvantages and discrimination that individuals may face because of who they are.
Look at Hawaii. The state recently proposed a “feminist economic recovery plan” that incorporates “the unique needs of indigenous and immigrant women, caregivers, elderly women, femme-identifying and non-binary people, incarcerated women, unsheltered women, domestic abuse and sex trafficking survivors, and women with disabilities.” Men and women are having varied experiences right now so implementing a “one size fits all” type approach simply won’t work for everyone. Women make up a larger portion of essential workers in the U.S. and are putting their lives at risk, often without proper protections and compensation in place, to keep society functioning. The fallout for women is going to be worse than it is for men, so business leaders need to address that when creating plans for the future.
For post-coronavirus workplaces, business and company decisions need to be made with a “gender budgeting” mindset. This doesn’t just mean creating a more flexible workplace to allow employees to create their own work schedules, although that is certainly a good policy to adopt.
It means looking at every aspect of the company, from compensation practices and recruiting strategy, to the performance reviews process and dress code, to ensure the needs of different kinds of employees are accounted for and each person has access to the same opportunities. If your recruiting policy or recent workforce downsizing has led to a gender imbalance at work, consider your recruiting practices, interview processes, and candidate selection practices. Seek out new approaches if existing ones have led to stasis.
This crisis has caused incredible damage to the economy, the workforce, and the lives of every individual, but it also provides an opportunity for leaders to act and create something new that they can be proud to stand behind.
Georgene Huang is the CEO and cofounder of Fairygodboss.