Why we Must Challenge the Gender Inequalities Posed by a Pandemic

By Dr Samantha Evans

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about change and upheaval to everyone, but were women bearing the biggest brunt of the responsibility? To mark International Women’s Day, Samantha Evans, lecturer in Human Resources and Athena Swan lead for KBS, explains how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted working mothers’ lives and why we must act now to reverse the damage.

Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, progress towards gender equality had been frustratingly slow and uneven. Yet here we are, at risk of ‘turning the clock back’ by overlooking the difficult labour market and caring inequalities currently faced by women.

Increasing evidence shows that women have shouldered the burden of childcare with the closure of schools and nurseries during the pandemic. Moreover, women work disproportionately in industries affected by Covid (such as retail and hospitality) and are more likely to be furloughed.

Research also suggests that women are less likely than men to have stayed closely in touch with their workplace, are more anxious about their job or promotion prospects and are experiencing higher stress levels than men during the pandemic.

The UK government stands accused of skewing its priorities for economic recovery towards male-dominated sectors. With mounting evidence (e.g. McKinsey Global Institute, Fawcett Society, The UK Women and Equalities Select Committee, TUC) that women’s jobs are more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s, we need to challenge the regressive effect of the pandemic on gender equality.

‘Choose to Challenge’

Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March, 8, 2021 is ‘choose to challenge’ – a critical message as we move towards a post-pandemic era. We need to increase awareness of the inherent gender inequalities exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We need to challenge policy makers and business leaders and push for greater gender equality. Governments need to be pushed to analyse and assess the equality impact of every policy. Business leaders need to be challenged to act fast and decisively to ensure the pandemic does not leave an inequality legacy for their organisation.

But there are signs of hope. We have reason to be optimistic that the cultural norms holding back gender progression are now more open to challenge. Flexible working, particularly homeworking, has become prevalent for both men and women, with many workers wanting to keep their current flexible working arrangements.

The pandemic has also seen fathers increasing the time they spend on childcare with evidence showing that they want to spend more time caring for their children post-pandemic.

By challenging any retreat to pre-pandemic norms on flexible working and caring responsibilities, we can harness the benefits of these cultural shifts not just for gender equality, but a more prosperous path to economic growth.

Dr Samantha Evans is a lecturer in Human Resource Management at Kent Business School. She is also the Athena Swan lead for KBS, an organisation which serves as body of recognition for the advancement of gender equality in higher education, encompassing representation, progression and success for all. She led the School’s successful application for a Bronze Athena Swan award in 2020.

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