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We’ve Lost A Lot Of Progress Made In Women’s Rights To The Pandemic; What Can We Do About It?

Posted: March 23, 2021

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The pandemic has affected all livelihoods, some more than others. Women have suffered in domestic as well as professional life. How do we change this regress?

A few weeks ago, I found myself in quite a few women empowerment panels and podcasts. I have been participating in these for a while now, but attending such a high concentration of similarly themed events in a single week was unusual. I have to balance such engagements with my day job.

Maybe it was a pile-up pushed out due to the pandemic, holidays, etc. Maybe it was just a scheduling faux pas on my side. But having my mind-space filled with back to back discussions on COVID-19, its effect on women, what is needed for workplace success for women, and such, I just had to pen this down.

I firmly believe that gender empowerment is the most important conversation we need to have these days. Especially when it comes to how to have women stay and thrive in the workplaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, especially for women. From an increase in domestic violence (in India as well as worldwide) to the disproportionate loss of women from the workforce – the pandemic was not an equalizer when it comes to gender.

Loss of women in workforce during the pandemic

The Centre for American Progress had reported as early as last July, that the COVID-related childcare crisis is sending women’s progress back a generation.

Forbes published a report in January 2021 citing over five million jobs lost by women in the US in 2020. More alarmingly, it noted that women accounted for 100% of the jobs lost in December. It is compared to the fact that just a year ago, women held more jobs than men did.

Fortune reported the same alarming story. The story doesn’t end with just jobs lost. Women who left the workforces are not returning, or if they are, then they remain unemployed. The US reports made global headlines citing the nation’s problematic lack of social infrastructure support, but it’s not just one nation’s issue.

In India (and worldwide) education has suffered much more for girls than for boys. So it’s not just a ‘today’ problem, ‘tomorrow’ is also at risk.

The systemic problem of a pay gap

A lot of this has to do with systemic issues we have in the gender space.

Women, worldwide, have jobs that pay less, are less satisfying, and more labor-intensive. In India, there is a huge difference in numbers when it comes to men and women in fields like STEM. Within a discipline too, the percentage of women and men in higher positions is concerning. So when it comes to the choice of one leaving work for child or family care needs, a woman’s income, is more often than not, the disposable one. This doesn’t help the already established guilt of choosing work over family, thanks to patriarchy.

The discussion panels got me thinking intensely on what next. What can we prevent? How can we sustain ourselves in the workplace? How do we build safety nets? What do we watch out for?

Keeping women in the workforce – is that a national responsibility? A society’s headache? Or a personal onus? We will not suddenly find ourselves in better jobs with higher pays or able to afford help all around. The workloads won’t be reduced. Nor will a childcare infrastructure – a societal reversal of load sharing – happen asap. However, with some awareness, we can endure this.

Understanding the socio-economic responsibility and recovery

We need to understand as women that our place in the workforce is not just a matter of personal consequences, there’s a broader socio-economic responsibility for the entire gender that lies embedded in it. So, we need to know when there is a mass exodus and understand the associated effects. It is possible for us to thrive again by building adequate tools that will serve us beyond pandemic too. In doing so, we hold our numbers. and slowly, can become champions of bringing other women back.

I arrived at three basic tenets for the recovery process:

  1. Mastering (and committing to) networking to create a safety net.
  2. Improving (or maintaining) emotional well-being consciously.
  3. Making undeterred, ‘can’t be compromised’ commitment to supporting other women in their employment.

Commitment to support women in employment

Supporting women is the most obvious, impactful and also, the most ignored matter in our daily lives. It is not simply about sympathizing with women’s causes, being worried about increasing (or continuing) gender issues, or being nice to domestic help. I am concerned with the ‘conscious commitment’ to not let our personal feelings or ideas about other women affect their employment. It is about taking conscious actions to help them with success in their work, no matter how small or big.

Of course, I am not asking for turning a blind eye to unethical behavior or supporting immoral or illegal behavior. I am talking of trading our commitment to self-interest for a commitment to our gender. If we do this consciously, the overall support-ecosystem will improve. It will not only help our individual chances but will do so for the entire band. For those of us who use social media regularly, it would mean acting on those likes we place on women’s posts in real life too.

Networking smart vs networking hard

I have already argued the value of networking for women in a previous post. 

Today, more than ever, it’s important to go above and beyond working. We need to cultivate networking: who knows about our work and who we know. Consciously. This can be feasible with the already increased workload that’s driving us to quit by applying strategy.

Create a simple map of people you know and people you should know for each area of your life. Identify the gaps and add new names where it needs to be added, removing the ones that don’t add value. A quick, gross, example? Say you are a developer in your day job, and you know a lot of developers and senior architects, managers, and so on in your company. You need to know some VPs, maybe some area experts in another area, and a few folks in other companies (based on-if your interest is upward advancement, lateral move, or expansion of your skillset). Mark this on the map. Add no more than three new contacts for every month. And then, approach them.

Similarly, find some folks you’d like to know for emotional support, spiritual discussions, discussing your hobbies, your troubles, whatever it might be – identify the areas of your life you do this for as they affect your mind space and repeat the same method. Write down the names of friends you have in ‘who you know’ in the emotional support category that you spend the most time with, and cross them off if you are not getting what you need. Put some new names in the vacancy that’s created. Now, each month, find some time to drive active engagements with these new names. A quick phone call, some Whatsapp messaging, an email, and then a quick meeting.

The goal is to have a safety net built through these networks for not just enduring today, but also to bounce back quicker tomorrow if need arrives.

For your work, to cultivate contacts in other companies in positions of influence, use tools like LinkedIn (and even Facebook). Politely, yet firmly, establish contact. When job security becomes an issue – the more people you know, the higher is your resilience and the shorter is your bounce-back time. Use social engagements like book clubs and Facebook interest groups to find people you can connect with, and do so. Men do this well – through golfing, with folks they run with, with card nights buddies, etc. It’s high time we women do too.

Taking care of emotional health

Lastly, find some time once a day (if that’s impossible, at least once a week) for enhancing your emotional health. If you need to find an online therapist because your anxiety is through the roof – recognize and prioritize that. If just 20 min of meditation a day will help, do that.

Recognize signs in yourself and find resolutions. Yes, it might be easier said than done. But it’s worth trying. I will not add the ‘ask for support’ note here as general advice because I know that is a luxury many might not have. But those who do – ask for and take support shamelessly and guiltlessly. As long as you give back when you can, there’s no reason for feeling bad either.

I will end this piece by saying that if it comes to a point where you feel there’s no other way than giving up on your employment or your education, please consider the effect of doing so on the society. If things like guilt, shame, and gender roles hadn’t existed, would you have made the same choice? Or would you have reduced your load elsewhere? Less perfect home and some imperfect meals maybe? When you have your answers, women’s bands will start forming.

Image source: a still from the short film Listen to Her

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Manages supply chain teams in Intel Corp. Blogger, writer and poet. Founder and Director Her

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