To equip themselves better for crisis situations, companies must create workplace structures and schedules that are conducive to enabling female and male employees. This is necessary to help them effectively contribute to their jobs while also successfully managing their family responsibilities, believes Dr. Sarah Degnan Kambou, President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Sarah’s work is focused on realizing women’s empowerment and gender equality to alleviate poverty worldwide. 

The pandemic has significantly impacted gender equality at workplaces. The COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women, girls, LGBTQIA+ and vulnerable populations. Talking specifically about India, Sarah said, “In the case of India, the lockdown and work-from-home scenarios have had a series of detrimental and compounding effects on women and girls. These include increased or added responsibilities to provide; decreased mobility, control over resources, and access to healthcare; greater risk of intimidation and violence at home; and loss of livelihoods or educational opportunities.”

Social distancing is tough to practice by disproportionately and negatively impacting populations like migrants and daily workers of which women and girls face the brunt of discrimination and violence. Women have emerged as essential frontline workers during this time and with their social mobility restrained, they face their own challenges of balancing work with heightened care duties or competing with other family members for the space and resources needed to work from home.

Sarah elaborates it’s important to realize that women and girls will feel the full weight of the structural inequalities intensified by COVID-19, and this could reverse progress made by the gender equality movement, if we fail to equip effective coping mechanisms to correct systemic inequities. One idea she suggests is to map the way forward through innovative solutions that could incorporate flexible work arrangements and redefine economic models with focus on care economy.

Making WFH possible

In this interaction, Sarah analyses work from home policies fostering challenges as well as benefits to women. She states that a gender equitable workplace environment is impossible without flexible work policies. COVID-19 has shown us that a range of flexible hours and remote work is possible. Companies should use this knowledge to create workplace structures and schedules that are conducive to enabling female and male employees to effectively contribute to their jobs while allowing them to manage their family responsibilities.

These are testing times for organizations that would require planning and intent. Narrow profit margins may cause them to reprioritize these investments with focus shifting from enhancing employee quality to steps necessary for financial sustainability. At this time vision of gender equality needs to be backed up by qualitative research proving that consistent investments in workers lead to sustainable growth of companies.

Sarah views this crisis as a challenging yet innovative time. She believes even though there are organizational challenges with respect to finding new ways to thrive professionally but it’s important we come together in solidarity to nudge our women and girls to not lose out on opportunities. By assessing several elements mapping impact and fostering equity, research should lead to structural reforms in programming and policy.