“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.” That quote by Michelle Obama highlights one of the starkest paradoxes of our society today. It both identifies the reason and suggests a solution to a problem that is preventing us from fulfilling our potential as a society. Admittedly, women's empowerment has taken several strides since the days of the women's suffrage movement and the post-World War II. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, the women have yet again borne a far greater share of the fallout of a catastrophic event or disruption.
A positive, if it can be called that, of the pandemic has been that it has given us time to pause and reflect. Something we had forgotten to do as a collective in the hustle-bustle of the 21st Century and the hyper-paced environment we're surrounded by. And so, as we chart our lives in a post-pandemic world, it is a great opportunity for us to reset our behaviours and actions. Particularly those involving the half of our citizenry that has remained underserved and underutilised.
Breaking the shackles of orthodox conditioning
Even before COVID-19, women shouldered a higher share of domestic work including childcare and household chores. And while time-consuming and important, the efforts are almost never measured or accounted for as 'productive work'. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get tracked. Unfortunately, conventional economics underestimates the Gross Domestic Product of many developing countries where women are primarily in caregiving roles. In contrast in developed economies where some of the roles traditionally performed by women are outsourced to paid professionals, this gets tracked and accounted for.
Besides being unpaid work, this issue stems from conditioning that projects women as the primary caregivers and keepers of a household from a tender age. This places domestic responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of women which holds them back from pursuing their own goals. Such preconceived notions have a cascading effect on the psyche of women at work. It can cause interpersonal issues that stem out of envy, particularly if they go against societal norms of gender acceptable roles.
To move forward, the change needs to begin with a societal upbringing that breaks the shackles of orthodox conditioning. Equally important is to empower women by getting them to imbibe a sense of self-respect and imparting skills that help women negotiate work and personal life. The key for women to progress is to help them cultivate healthy and respectful relationships that don’t deter their success.
Overcoming the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women
A recent study by Azim Premji University revealed that while 61 percent of men reported no effect of COVID-19 on their employment, the corresponding number for women was only 19 percent. Additionally, in terms of return to employment in a post-pandemic scenario, only 7 percent of men followed a no-recovery trajectory, the extent for women was 47 percent.
This indicates a climate where COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women in terms of loss of employment as well as the opportunities for them to return to work in a post-pandemic world. This could also significantly impact our reported GDP growth rate as large numbers of women falling out of paid employment means lower household incomes & significantly reduces the potential of consumption to drive economic growth in India.
A sustainable way to address this challenge is to deal with it at the grassroots level. One way to do this is by breaking down conventional barriers and encouraging more schoolgirls and women to take up STEM education. Besides expanding their horizon, in the long term it aids them to move away from disadvantaged sectors or lower ends of value chains which are among the worst-affected by the crisis.
Additionally, a focus on enhancing their professional skills and helping them balance and reprioritize their work lends a sense of self-confidence which goes a long way in supporting the careers of working women. It is equally important to ensure the right resources and platforms are available to cater to women at different levels of their career as against dealing with it as a monolith.
Enabling a conducive and inclusive work environment for women
A conventional mindset of women's roles can limit them from engaging in paid work or constrain their options when they do decide to work. In an ideal world, work from home (WFH) would be particularly good for women with full-time jobs as it offers a higher degree of flexibility and saves time on commuting. Thus, resulting in better work-life balance.
However, amidst office chores, women were also expected to take the load on housework and childcare. Not surprisingly, similar expectations are also prevalent in professional working environments. And while it may not be expressed in as many words, the undercurrent is unmissable. This not only affects the productivity of women at work but also reinforces the age-old notions that further exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace.
To address this, companies need to embed a culture of diversity and inclusivity in their DNA. From hiring practices, policies to career planning and even the way they do business, gender sensitivity needs to permeate through all levels of an organisation and its people. To treat gender diversity as an initiative or a campaign, or as a peripheral issue under the HR function does the cause more disservice as against aiding it.
If anything, it should be a top-down approach where all leaders (not just women leaders) drive and support the agenda of nurturing an inclusive work culture that fosters gender equality at the workplace.
Research in recent years has yielded mounting evidence that gender equality can promote economic growth and can have a positive impact on macro-level growth as well as human capital. A 2019 study by the International Monetary Fund revealed that closing the gender gap could lead to a 6.8 percent gain in GDP. Moreover, getting half the world’s population to be more actively involved in work can lead to a surge in creativity, innovation, and technological advancement.
So, as we begin the journey of post-pandemic recovery, we would do better as a society if we realise the importance and criticality of women’s roles and their potential. Over and above all else, at every stage, women need to take charge of their lives and their careers and ensure they are the sole driving force of the decisions they make.