• Nhlamu Dlomu, Leadership |

The COVID-19 recession has been particularly hard on working women. According to The Centre for Economic Policy Research, women are losing jobs at a faster rate than men and appear to be at the back of the line when it comes to finding new positions.

And with schools closed, women have, as usual, taken on the bulk of childcare duties, forcing some to either cut back their working hours or leave the workforce entirely.

As the International Labour Organization starkly puts it, “previous crises offer some cautionary lessons for the current one. They illustrate that when jobs are scarce, women are denied economic opportunity and security relative to men.”

If we don’t act now, we’ll see a widening of the gender equality gap that we’ve all been fighting so hard to close.

Visions of an inclusive workplace

The past year may have exposed continued workplace inequality, but there have also been some encouraging trends that could signal a move to a more level playing field.

Take the huge shift to flexible or ‘hybrid’ working, where employees have more control over when and where they do their jobs. We may have been forced to work from home for safety reasons, but few of us imagine returning to the old 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday, office routine.

This should present an opportunity for those juggling families and other care responsibilities to shape their work around their personal lives, rather than vice versa.

With both parents often at home during lockdown, men have taken on a greater share of domestic and caring tasks. Although we’re not there yet – research Institute IZA reports that women are still spending 40 percent more time on childcare than their male partners – it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

However, we can’t take this for granted. Ariane Hegewisch, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the US, feels “The real danger at the moment is that people are starting to associate women with childcare more strongly than before.

It’s my hope that we transform current challenges into an opportunity once and for all, and re-set entrenched social norms that say women are the primary caregivers and houseworkers. In today’s world, it’s possible for couples to support each other’s dreams. That may mean sharing responsibilities equally, or working different hours at certain critical periods – for example, when one partner is pursuing a promotion or starting a new career journey, and the children are young.

Shifting values in a post-COVID-19 world

One of the positive consequences of the pandemic is an increased human approach to work. As we’ve all hunkered down in our homes, we’ve become far more empathetic to each other’s challenges and stresses.

Whether caring for elderly parents, juggling domestic and work life, or simply feeling lonely and upset, it’s suddenly become more acceptable to show one’s feelings. Indeed, demonstrating vulnerability is increasingly seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

As we move to a more hybrid working environment, it is paramount that we continue to strive for a workplace without discrimination. Investing in appropriate technologies that enable and promote collaboration will be crucial. Encouragingly, more than a third of the female leaders taking part in KPMG’s Global Female Leaders Outlook survey believe the pandemic will not influence their next career step. The same number of respondents think progress made on diversity and inclusion won’t slow beyond COVID-19, and almost half say they’re more focused on establishing gender, racial and social equality, both within and outside their organizations.

We must relentlessly push for progress

The pandemic has, in some ways, created a more equal level playing field. It’s also reignited the age-old debate about men and women’s traditional societal roles.

I believe hybrid working can be a catalyst for greater gender equality. But to ensure that everyone benefits, we must embed fairness and flexibility in a way that creates equal career prospects, tailoring our organizations around the varying needs of all employees.

And we must continue to lay career paths for women, including in areas where they’re under-represented – like technology. Reporting on environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals makes us more accountable, and we can’t pay less attention to the “S” (for social), which means tracking inclusion and diversity and setting goals so that we can track our progress in areas such as driving better gender balance and representation. 

We’ve come a long way in advancing career perspectives, conditions and rewards for women, but we still have a long, long way to go. The incredible response to the pandemic makes me optimistic that we have both the will and the technological tools to create workplaces with truly equal opportunities.