If there’s one upside to experiencing a major challenge or transformative event, it’s that these moments can highlight issues that were sitting on the backburner and provide an opportunity to rethink the status quo. With the entire world ground to a halt by COVID-19, the gender dynamics at home and at work have been thrown in the spotlight.
Reports from UN Women and McKinsey & Company found that women were particularly hard hit by COVID-19. Women with families working in offices suddenly found themselves home-schooling and working from home, while those in the service industry or in front-line travel—areas which are dominated by women–were the first to lose their employment.
This is a loss for everyone – not just women. Many studies have found that diverse and inclusive workplaces create better business results, and the same has been found for women in leadership positions, writes Mieke De Schepper, executive vice president for online travel and managing director for Amadeus, Asia Pacific
That’s why Amadeus is joining International Women’s Day’s Choose to Challenge campaign this year. At this time of great change, all of us can contribute to rebuilding a better and more inclusive future. We invite you to join us on this campaign to #ChoosetoChallenge gender bias and inequality. Here are three ways you can make a difference on this International Women’s Day, and every day.
1. #ChoosetoChallenge your personal assumptions
Sometimes the best place to start is with ourselves. Like all forms of discrimination, gender bias is hidden below the surface in our subconscious. All of us have been exposed to a lifetime of fairy tales, movies, and culture that shape how we perceive the role of men and women in society. These are ideas like, “real men are tough, and real women are caring”. Or “men are better at math and science, and women are better at humanities”. But few of us fall in any one category, and all people benefit from a full spectrum of feelings and experiences. Gender bias doesn’t just harm women, it can box in and limit men too. That’s why the first step in the #ChoosetoChallenge campaign is to pay attention to our own subtle thoughts and biases.
There are little things we can do, like noticing how we feel when we see men or women with kids on our Zoom calls. Do we react differently when the parent is a man compared to a woman? Or we can notice the adjectives we use to describe children: how often do we describe little boys as assertive or little girls as bossy?
Do we assume a CEO or a surgeon is a man (https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/gender-bias-riddles) and a teacher or nurse a woman? Even as a female executive I catch myself having these gender biases. The point of these exercises isn’t to feel guilty—we are all to a certain extent, a product of our culture and surroundings. The objective is to notice how easy it is to fall into patterns that may not help us, or those around us. The #ChoosetoChallenge campaign starts with self-awareness.
2. #ChoosetoChallenge leadership
Female leaders made the headlines for all the right reasons in 2020. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was praised for her leadership style during the pandemic. In Germany, led by Angela Merkel, the death rate was far lower than in Britain, France, Italy or Spain. Finland, led by Prime minister Sanna Marin and a coalition of four female-led parties, had fewer than 10% as many deaths as nearby Sweden. Finally, in Taiwan, president Tsai Ing-wen led one of the most successful COVID control efforts in the world, preventing a full national lockdown with widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation measures.
Research suggests this wasn’t a coincidence, and that women’s more collaborative and empathetic leadership styles outperform more autocratic, top-down leaders when crisis strikes. It’s not that women are inherently more collaborative or empathetic than men, it’s just that while male leaders are often rewarded for being assertive and confident, many women in the workplace are penalised for the same qualities. The result is that women who rise to positions of power tend to have done so thanks to the strength of their professional relationships and collaborative approach to leadership– qualities which are particularly useful in times of crisis.
Some companies are realising the importance of female leadership, but just barely. In 2020, just 7.8% of CEOs in the S&P 500 were women, and that’s an all-time high. For companies, that’s a real loss: the more diverse a workplace is, the more different ideas come together. But diversity in the workplace is not only a matter of men vs. women in leadership roles, it is a matter of having a combination of both throughout the entire organisation—including in the most senior levels of the company.
Companies all over the world can #ChoosetoChallenge leadership and find new and innovative ways to support more diverse workplaces. Our efforts are bound to pay off: workplace diversity increases productivity and creativity, improves performance and staff retention, and creates more collaborative and resilient organisations in times of crisis. It’s no wonder then, that the most gender-diverse companies are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.
3. #Choosetochallenge our cultural habits
COVID-19 has dramatically changed how we work and as a result the hidden “second-shift” that women have been taking on isn’t so hidden anymore. With men, women and kids all working and studying from home, everyone has had to take on more responsibilities with child-rearing and education. COVID-19 has broken down barriers to talk about our personal lives at work. And paradoxically, this digital way of working has created a more human and intimate working environment for all. In some ways, working from home has equalised the playing field for women, by putting men in the same situation, having to combine work and family.
It’s no secret that flexible work policies encourage women’s rise to leadership roles. Roughly 31% of women who took a career break after having kids said they didn’t want to but had to because of a lack of workplace flexibility, according to a 2019 FlexJobs survey. Of those same women, 70% said it was difficult for them to re-enter the workforce after taking time off.
COVID-19 has proved to companies that flexible working arrangements don’t have to impact productivity. If companies could keep running with employees also trying to homeschool their kids, imagine what these same working parents could achieve when their kids are back at school?
This is a great opportunity for men to step up at home, and to ensure they are doing their fair share.
But men like women need support. Companies and governments have an opportunity to create equitable parental leave policies for both men and women – a practice that supports early childhood development and happy couples. Studies have found that men who take parental leave are less likely to get divorced, and more likely to develop stronger relationships with their children. But some studies have also found that paternity leave can damage a man’s professional reputation in the workplace. Fortunately, these cultural barriers can be overcome.
In 2006 for example, Quebec adopted a “daddy quota” similar to the Scandinavian model, offering five weeks of dedicated, non-transferable, government-paid leave to new fathers in the province. Within two years, 75 percent of new fathers in Quebec were taking paternity leave, up from 22 percent before. One to three years after childbirth, mothers in Quebec whose partners had taken the “daddy quota” were working an hour longer per day, on average, and were 7 percent more likely to be employed full-time, one study found.
These are big cultural changes that require major commitments and transformational change from governments, companies, and individuals like you and me. Gender equality isn’t about pitting women against men, on the contrary, it’s about all of us working together to benefit families, workplaces and society. These changes start with personal awareness. It’s a shift in our thinking, but if all of us take action and #ChoosetoChallenge our personal assumptions, our ways of doing business, and our harmful cultural habits, all of us can benefit.