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disaster for feminism

Is the pandemic a disaster for feminism?

The COVID-19 crisis is triggering a recession on a massive scale, economically and socially. The challenges it presents are unprecedented in recent times. Economies, governments, workforces, families, relationships, sanity and spirits are being tested and it magnifies all existing inequalities.

As these are uncovered, we have a choice to either maintain the status quo or challenge it to make a better world. Anna Baréz-Brown discusses…

Disaster in the forecast

Whether in a spacious house or cramped apartment, protected by a steady salary or part of the gig economy, with an office-based job or one in hospitality, one silent victim of the pandemic remains the same: women’s independence. It’s an uncomfortable truth: COVID-19 has the potential to be a disaster for equality because pandemics affect men and women differently.

Between job losses, school closures and isolation, the ability of many dual-earner couples to both work because someone else is looking after their children is dissolving. Many couples feel the pressure to decide which partner takes a hit.

Unfortunately, the decision is often influenced by the company you work for. The reality is more women than men are being asked to go part-time or made redundant and in the UK many have been furloughed due to domestic responsibilities. Due to lower salary expectations, women are frequently the ones to give up their jobs. Coronavirus is lasting months, not weeks, with its impact spanning years; some women’s lifetime earnings will never recover.

At Shine, we’ve worked with more than 10,000 professionals, most of whom are women. Based on the conversations we’ve had, we can safely say that, compared to their male partners, they do more housework, carry more of the emotional labour (i.e. looking after the emotional needs of children and elderly parents) and have less me-time. From recent 1:1 and group coaching sessions, we find proof of the same patter: women work around the clock to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Take one of my coaching clients, for example, who starts her day at 6am with a dog walk, works until the kids get up, home schools between 9 and noon, skips lunch to work until 6pm makes dinner and then finishes the day doing house chores until 10pm. Meanwhile, her partner is tucked away in his study, logging on at 9am and only emerging for mealtimes. It highlights an alarming trend. Our family systems are regressing and this is being subconsciously supported and encouraged by the government removing its expectations of companies to report their gender pay gap stats.

Chance of sun

While the outlook is bleak, it’s not inevitable. Rather than blaming and complaining, there are conscious actions we can make to turn this unprecedented situation into an opportunity for equality.

Firstly, it’s a good time to look at all the roles you play and assess which ones you need help with, can delegate or simply drop altogether. In corona-times, many of us have taken on roles we might not have expected. We’re housekeepers, teachers, dogwalkers, toy-picker-uppers, dishwasher emptiers and facilitators. Often, we take on these roles when no one’s asked us to.

Don’t martyr yourself. There’s a real danger to say ‘If I don’t do it, nobody will’. That’s not a reason to keep doing it. Delegating or shedding a role may mean you need to have a difficult conversation. Try to approach it with empathy – it’s a great facilitator, often stripping the heightened emotion out of conversation.

If you can, talk with your partner while you’re out for a walk. It may seem a small thing, but having a difficult conversation while you’re side by side can alleviate some of the tension associated with eye contact and facing someone directly.

Once lockdown is over, we recommend a transition period between what you’re experiencing now and the ‘new normal’. For companies, this means anticipating that employees’ priorities might have changed and alliances may need to be redesigned. Where a large proportion of the workforce has been furloughed, some staff will have been dealing with anxiety about their job security, while others will be exhausted from working hard to cover for absent colleagues.

Resentment is likely to have crept in. Companies which try to return to old systems and resume regular working too quickly are at risk of creating a toxic environment, missing a trick to establish a stronger, more diverse team. There’s no expectation that organisations should be able to do this themselves. After social isolation, people are going to be hungry for sharing, being open and understanding how everyone else felt. They need a place where this can happen. Bringing in external expertise to go through the process with leaders and teams can facilitate honest discussions and bring in new perspectives for a fresh start.

In the midst of a crisis, there is a massive opportunity for new beginnings, for businesses to come back and build a more human and connected workplace than before, if they take advantage of these extraordinary times.

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