VIEWPOINT: Can COVID-19 Serve as a Reset button for gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Exclusively writing for the New African Woman, Marian Salzman – Senior Vice President, Global Communications at Philip Morris International – discusses why post COVID-19, the next “normal” should be a world that works better for all – by empowering women.

Early on in the global pandemic, there was a lot of talk about how the virus impacts men more than women. While both sexes contract the disease at roughly the same rate, available data seem to show that men were more likely to die from it. However, when one looks more holistically at COVID-19’s impact – including its economic repercussions—it becomes clear that women, are bearing the brunt.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women in America make up roughly two-thirds of workers in the 40 lowest-paying jobs, including childcare workers, waitresses, and hotel housekeepers—jobs that disappeared during the lockdowns and that typically lack healthcare coverage and paid sick leave.
Domestic burdens also fall disproportionately on women, made worse by stay-at-home orders. Research from the EU’s Gender Equality Index found that 79 percent of women in Europe do housework or cook for at least one hour every day, compared with just 34 percent of men.

The Shadow Pandemic
On top of that, we have been seeing what some are calling the “shadow pandemic” – increased domestic violence, globally, against women and girls. Physically, economically, and emotionally, women seem to be disproportionately impacted by this crisis.
What needs to happen to improve the situation before the next such crisis? A big part of the solution will be putting more women in positions of power. We have all seen the reports of female heads of state shining during this pandemic—from New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel to Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen.

I do not believe that effective leadership is limited to either sex, but I do grow more convinced every year that injecting women’s voices into conversations and decision-making will lead to better outcomes, for businesses and for society.
There is also evidence that the absence of women on COVID-19 response teams has resulted in plans that fail to take into account the needs of women and girls and could worsen the impact of the crisis on them and their families. When I look at how my company, Philip Morris International (PMI), has handled the pandemic internally, I can see the influence of female leaders. Inclusivity and diversity—including a more equitable gender balance—has been a strong focus of the company in recent years.

At present, women account for 35 percent of all management positions at PMI, up 6 percentage points since the end of 2014 (toward a goal of 40 percent by 2022), and we are the first company to have been equal-salary certified globally, meaning that women and men are paid the same for the same work in every market in which we operate.
We still have a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction. I head the Global Communications function at PMI, and we recently surveyed our people about the company’s response to the pandemic and our current work-from-home environment.

Nearly all respondents (97 percent) said they have felt supported by their managers during the crisis, 89 percent accorded high marks to PMI’s awareness of employees’ personal circumstances (e.g., needing to juggle childcare and work while schools are closed), and 75% said company management is doing a good or excellent job of recognizing the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of the crisis.
We have made a real point of reaching out to people in personal ways, including phone calls and video chats just to “check in” as opposed to focusing only on work deliverables.

In other words, we have been doing what I have been advising brands to do: communicating with empathy and with a focus on people above all else. As we have moved through this crisis period, we have all been talking about the “new normal”—about what our new world will look like—as if we don’t have the ability to influence it.

See Also

Opportunity for a global reset
Why not look at this crisis as an opportunity for a global reset, most especially in terms of boosting equity (gender, economic, and racial)? For those of us in countries forced to shut down to some extent during the pandemic, we have had a chance to pause and reconsider whether we are happy with the world we are living in, and how we would like to change it.
I think we are seeing the impact of those reflections on the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and other countries. There is a sense that people are less willing to remain silent in the face of injustices now compared with before the pandemic.
We know the world isn’t working, and we want to fix it.

Some change will need to be driven on a macro level—changing the lending practices of the financial industry, for instance.
But, with regard to elevating women, I am seeing some promising signs of change at the micro level, woman to woman. I have written before about what I call the “COVID pivot”—small businesses bobbing and weaving, rethinking their output and modes of operation and communicating with their customers in creative ways to make it through the crisis. What I am seeing now, and what I hope to see more of, is women entrepreneurs using their skills to assist other women.
It is clear that our post-COVID-19 world will include much more “telecommuting”. It makes sense for a lot of reasons, and the shutdowns have shown companies how much they can accomplish with employees working remotely.

The next “normal” –  a world that works better for all
Many people will return to their offices, but others will not. That brings us back to the issue of women having to juggle working from home with childcare, housekeeping, and other duties that fall disproportionately on them.
It’s a difficult burden, as reflected in the fact that, according to a survey by Syndio, 14 percent of U.S. women surveyed (26 percent of Hispanics versus 12 percent of whites) considered quitting their jobs during the pandemic to cope with increased family demands.
Why not start or invest in businesses that make it easier for women to work from home? In India, women are tapping into their culinary talents to sell home-cooked meals via Instagram. In the U.S., SynaVoice founder and women’s advocate Julie Rothhouse has launched SynaVoice SOL (Summer OnLine), a pop-up summer camp for high school students stuck at home during the pandemic.
In Pakistan, women-owned startup Dot & Line is training female home-based teachers to offer web-based courses using a combination of video-chat learning, traditional workbooks, and gamification apps.
Each of these programs supports women in working from home—while also offering at-home employment opportunities. If the world’s women put their full support behind other women—purchasing from women-owned businesses, voting women into office, helping them to advance into leadership positions—our next “normal” could be a world that works better for all.

Marian Salzman is Senior Vice President, Global Communications at Philip Morris International. You can learn more about her here
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