Article originally appeared in Brink News on February 16, 2021.
What began as a global health and economic crisis a year ago has evolved into a universal test for societies and economies around the world.
But in all challenges lie opportunities. And one unique opportunity now on the table, amid what the World Economic Forum (WEF) has labeled the “Great Reset,” is the chance for business leaders to anchor economic recovery with new levels of gender parity and workplace equality.
I recently had the privilege of speaking at a session hosted by the WEF on policies, practices and partnerships needed to advance workplace gender parity. The session provided a productive conversation, highlighting the fact that COVID-19 has sharply exacerbated gender inequality. In particular, the economic upheaval triggered by the pandemic is rolling back hard-won gains in women’s labor participation rate and economic empowerment.
For example, women in the U.S. have lost a net total of 5.5 million jobs since February 2020, accounting for 55% of net job loss during the crisis, despite making up slightly less than half of the workforce. Furthermore, on a net basis, all 140,000 U.S. jobs lost in December 2020 belonged to women. Even more affected are women of color, who before COVID, already experienced notable disparities in financial stability and well-being.
Following the WEF discussion, I have been thinking about how the pandemic’s recovery phase is likely to open up new doors for prioritizing gender parity. And I believe the “why” behind this opportunity is just too powerful and promising for businesses to ignore.
In recent years, workplaces have increasingly focused on implementing policies that promote gender equality. But in facing the headwinds of COVID-19, placing gender parity at the heart of recovery won’t just benefit women’s advancement. If public response to the pandemic is any indicator, more gender-diverse leadership will offer businesses a competitive advantage.
When looking at governments’ responses to COVID-19, female leaders have certainly held their own. Heads of state such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have been lauded for protecting lives and sustaining economic activity with proactive leadership.
With the spotlight on women in leadership, gender parity may finally earn its long-overdue status as a business imperative. As the Women, Business, and the Law 2020 report from the World Bank highlights, “Equality of opportunity is good economics.” Indeed, it is estimated that women’s lagging participation in employment and entrepreneurship costs the global economy about 15% of GDP.
The events of the pandemic have forever changed the ways businesses operate and drive growth. Leading purposefully and combining empathy and economics, balancing the needs of people and the pursuit of profits has delivered results. Gender parity is critical for achieving this equilibrium.
At the same time, consumers expect businesses to “walk the talk” and will push aside those who do not. In too many instances, there is a striking discord between what organizations say and what they do.
For example, while 81% of companies say they are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, only 42% track progress, according to Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality report. Meanwhile, 79% of companies say there is equal access to promotion, but only 41% track internal mobility by gender. How can you realize success without tracking it? The accountability is missing. Furthermore, only 44% of companies report that women are equally represented in roles with profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities, which are crucial to advancement and job security in many companies.
The will to advance gender parity is clearly there. But are the actions taken in earnest to effect sustainable change?
Despite its cataclysm, the pandemic offers unprecedented teachable moments. The lessons learned will help save lives and strengthen economies. Even though the past year has triggered significant setbacks for gender parity, this is also a teachable moment for leaders to turn the tide. Organizations have an enormous reset button they can engage to completely transform how, where and when people work. It’s an attractive option for many workers regardless of gender, but can be especially helpful to women whose responsibilities outside the workplace may otherwise lead them to deprioritize their careers.
By understanding why gender parity should be at the root of COVID-19 recovery, leaders can truly realize the value women bring to organizations, whether as managers, employees, board members, customers, vendors or members in the communities they operate.
Leaders can also learn how to fully harness their willingness to hold themselves accountable, champion equality and track progress. With more rigor in applying metrics, organizations will realize what works best in promoting gender parity and implement best practices that truly make a difference at the end of the day and for years to come.
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