By Wanda Thibodeaux
COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime type of crisis, and there’s virtually no element of life that it hasn’t disrupted in some way. On the positive side of the pandemic, the virus can challenge us to abandon systems that were toxic or inefficient and to develop entirely new, sustainable, socially beneficial ways of living.
But experts now understand based on COVID-19 data that the virus affects certain groups disproportionately, such as African Americans. And across a wide range of demographics, it’s also clear that there is a gender gap in terms of socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. Consider the following:
- A United Nations report asserted that women are feeling the financial influence of the disease more strongly, women’s disrupted access to health services can negatively influence wellbeing, unpaid care work has gone up, and violence against women is increasing as the pandemic forces them into lockdown with abusers. Melinda Gates echoed these sentiments in her article for Foreign Affairs and noted that, around the world, women are 1.8 times as likely as men to have their jobs cut because of the virus.
- Because of the dramatic uptick in domestic violence, the World Health Organization now has a public awareness campaign on its site to help women get away from abusers during the pandemic.
- A report by the Boston Consulting Group found that the time parents are spending on education per week has virtually doubled from 30 to 59 hours, with women putting in 15 hours more per week than men do.
- NPR reports that women accounted for nearly 60 percent of the layoffs that happened in the first wave of pandemic layoffs, in part because women account for a large number of high-contact positions.
Here’s what you can specifically do as a business leader to give the women in your organization a hand.
1. Offer alternative child care and education options
Consider paying for a part-time nanny or tutor. This can free women to not only handle other household responsibilities, but also to focus as they work from home, and to engage in training, academic courses and business development. Business loans, support from new investors and emergency programs may be able to defer the costs. Or you can find funding by reducing inefficient, unused internal resources and programs.
2. Provide subscription services
Offering meal kit or grocery delivery programs, pro versions of business-, goal- or organizational-related apps and databases can simplify work, save time and provide resources that help her succeed. As with child care and education, other sources might help reduce your expenses, and tools like surveys can pinpoint the services women value the most.
3. Tap your network for mentors
Introduce women to other professionals who can serve as mentors, or who are looking to train and hire new staff. Even if your budget forces you to downsize, this shows women you care about them beyond your company, creates new sources of support and helps them transition into positions that will continue to accelerate their careers.
4. Kick the men out of the traditional office (and into a home one)
Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University, told The New York Times that men who can work from home do about 50 percent more child care than men who can’t. So by embracing remote work for men where it makes sense, even on a voluntary basis, you’ll directly or indirectly help address the child care gap that keeps working moms frazzled. Combining this with a more independent, results-based schedule for both men and women can result in less stress and keep everyone productive. Companies like Salesforce and PepsiCo already have signed a pledge to utilize these types of flexible setups.
5. Offer extra reassurance
Women are more likely than men to have worries about their mental wellbeing and performance reviews. They understand how difficult it is to stay in the corporate game and are well aware of the biases within the business world that hold them back. So do all you can to make sure that they know you see their contributions and you are going to continue to be a resource and advocate for them. This can alleviate some of the mental fatigue women are experiencing.
It is admittedly difficult to dismantle many of the underlying systemic problems that are contributing to women’s challenges during COVID-19. But you still can do a lot to alleviate the symptoms of those systems now and beyond the pandemic, and taking these types of actions can help raise awareness about and initiate the shifts that are increasingly necessary. You might only be one leader, but when one leader links to another over and over again, the collective results for women — and business and society in general — can be incredible.