As the second half of 2020 approaches, we realise how much COVID-19 has directly affected society, the economy, and our everyday lives. Women are disproportionately affected and experience from previous pandemics and economic shocks is clear: women’s economic security and participation in formal work will be adversely affected, and more so than men’s; and these impacts will be more long-lasting. To mitigate these risks to women, it is critical for governments, humanitarian organisations and the private sector to include women’s economic empowerment as an essential component of COVID-19 responses.
The pandemic has challenged traditional business practices and workplace arrangements. In the interest of continuing operations despite lockdown and quarantine measures, businesses have had to allow employees to work remotely where this is feasible and some are actually considering to make the transition permanent. Business leaders have realised that they can manage teams efficiently off-site and have taken the opportunity to evaluate the practicability and benefits of maintaining a remote team. Suddenly, telecommuting has become the practical and cost-efficient method of keeping a business operational and afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, and there is reason to believe that it will continue after the pandemic.
The transition to remote work was forced on us by the pandemic, but the positive responses to it could be widely anticipated. Creating flexible and remote work opportunities is popular with staff and it is a viable way to keep women in formal employment. Location-independent work helps level the playing field for jobseekers, by letting women pursue employment even if they live in a traditional family structure where they need manage a high workload of unpaid care. Higher level, management positions become more available to women, regardless of caregiving responsibilities. Companies, in turn, have access to a larger and more diverse talent pool, on top of minimising operational expenses.
In as much as we recognise the viability of remote work and appreciate the economic opportunities that have become available to women in light of the crisis, we must also acknowledge the risks and challenges. Telecommuting has blurred the lines separating housework from work-related tasks, and the hours that should be devoted to each work category. Even more alarming is the spike in the number of cases of domestic violence, globally—an unintended consequence of staying at home.
Additional domestic burden which may negatively affect the overall productivity of telecommuting employees and the increasing cases of domestic violence reinforce the need to influence gender norms and promote gender equality. The home has been transformed into a workplace and consequently, the equal sharing of household chores and unpaid care work has become both more important and more feasible, particularly where both spouses are working from home.
The COVID-19 crisis has severely impacted small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that, unlike large corporations, have minimal cash reserves. Even in good times, women business owners are less likely to access funding than their male counterparts. We need to make sure that support for SMEs–which are vital to the health of our economies and future employment growth–recognises the systemic discrimination against women and ensures that women-owned and operated SMEs get fair access to emergency funding.
Women’s economic empowerment and gender equality have always been central to our work. When Investing in Women was established in 2016, we were fully aware it would not be easy, but prepared to take on difficult challenges. We, however, had not foreseen that one of those challenges would be a global health and economic crisis, and that it would underscore and aggravate previously identified gender issues we have been battling with prior to the pandemic.
Our work may have become more challenging, but it has also become more crucial. How we recognise and support women’s economic empowerment through this crisis will be critical to how quickly and successfully we recover. Gender diverse teams are better at risk management; they are more innovative and get better results. Let’s ensure that women are part of crisis management and response at every level, and we collect data and perspectives that bring out gender differences.
Investing in Women is taking steps towards ensuring long-term economic recovery through its partners and making women’s economic empowerment a pivotal element of every response strategy to ensure economic stability and resilience in a post-COVID world.
Julia Newton-Howes is the CEO of Investing in Women.