CTS 2020: Covid-19 impact sets the stage to repair inequality in the workplace

Originally Published by Cartt
Author: Lynn Greiner

TORONTO – The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on employment, but it’s had a disproportionately large effect on women’s jobs, according to a Tuesday morning panel at the virtual Canadian Telecom Summit.

Panelists Lisa Traverse, director of marketing, Alliance Corporation and co-lead, Women of STAC (The Structure, Tower and Antenna Council) and Tracey Walsh, senior manager national, business development, real estate solutions , media technology and infrastructure services, CBC/Radio-Canada joined moderator Alexandra Posadzki, telecom reporter at The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business in a fireside chat to discuss the issues, and the potential opportunities arising from them.

Walsh observed that although women make up 39% of the global workforce, they represented 54% of Covid-related job losses.

“They are disproportionately affected for sure,” she said. “And one of the things I think in the big scheme of things is that it’s gender inequality that exists already. So women naturally work more part time, and one of the big reasons for that is to take care of their kids. They’re often working lower paying jobs, and they get paid less than men. So they’re already at a disadvantage during a crisis, they have less money, less savings, less opportunity to have an equal footing in the beginning.”

On top of that, she said, 60% of people can’t telework – and a disproportionate number of them are women. For example, 90% of nurses are women as well as 90% of those doing senior care, and almost 70% of teachers. All of these are frontline jobs with unsafe work conditions.

Whether or not women can work from home, statistics show that they also bear most of the burden of childcare and other domestic duties.

I think it’s important to note that even in Covid, a lot of women – almost 25% – said they may leave the workforce,” she said. “They just can’t handle the burden of childcare and Covid at the same time. The reasons are inflexibility, and their care responsibilities. And so it’s a disproportionate impact on women. We lose 25% of the workforce because they have to do care.”

Even if they come back to work, they enter the market at a lower level, and have less opportunity for advancement.

The situation has a huge impact on our gross domestic product too, noted Traverse. “Because in the whole economy, when people just don’t have as much money coming in as they did before, they just don’t have as much money to spend,” she said. “With less women working, less money coming in, less money being spent, we’re going to see a huge impact on our economy for years.”

An audience member posed the question of the effect that affordable childcare such as that offered in Quebec would have on women in the workplace.

“Oh, my gosh, I cannot tell you, I feel like I really wish the rest of Canada had such a program,” Traverse said. “$7 a day for daycare, and you’re getting excellent quality daycare. That’s a huge impact on women working because if you’re not making that much money to begin with, it doesn’t make any sense for you to go back to work and leave your children and pay more money for daycare. And I think in times like now it has a much bigger impact.”

“If we don’t have a fair and affordable childcare, the economy stalls.” – Tracey Walsh, CBC

Walsh agreed, citing friends who have to pay $1,200 per month per child for care. “I think it comes back to women too, because in your household you sometimes have to make a decision, okay, who is the largest breadwinner here, who is the person bringing home the most money,” she noted. “In a heterosexual relationship, usually the male stays working and the female might stay home the first four or five years to raise children. So if we don’t have a fair and affordable childcare, the economy stalls. There’s a whole percentage of the population – 50% – and those in particular who have children who can’t work. I think it’s a federal initiative, and it’s a social initiative that we need to put greater emphasis on.”

The audience, too, was in accord, voting in an online poll that revealed that 77% of them felt that the pandemic has placed excess strain on the women in their households.

Workplace expectations and gender stereotypes add to the problems, as Traverse pointed out. Her neighbours, a professional working couple with two small children, ended up fighting about whose job was more important and who should be minding the kids. Another friend who worked from home while her husband went into the office found that he expected her to do all of the housework, in addition to her job, while he was out.

“I would say a question that as a society we need to ask ourselves is, why is the expectation that the women carry the burden of childcare, the burden of domestic? Why is it natural?” Walsh said.

“And even at work I think a lot of times the conscious or unconscious bias is that oh, women will leave now if their child is sick… women will take care of their parents when they’re ill, we will probably go pick up the dog. So maybe as a society we need to be saying, ‘well, there’s an equal balance between men and women, and workplaces should say yes, men can leave too and should leave too’. Family responsibility is family responsibility, not gender specific.”

But, she went on, we need to address our conscious and unconscious biases – things like, men are better at giving direction because they’re more assertive, and women are the nurturers.

“Work reflects society, society reflects work,” she said. “So if we challenge all those things about ourselves, maybe then we’ll be able to bring our workforce back into an equal balance where it’s not gender specific.”

Traverse agreed. ” I think that the most important thing we can do, as parents anyway, is to encourage kids that they can do anything they want, and to open their eyes to it and at least make it available,” she said. “I think that would be a great thing for all of us to do to recognize our own bias.”

The question then arose, what can managers do to alleviate the stress women suffer in the workplace, aside from taking unconscious bias training.

“I think I come back to the number one thing for me is to promote gender equality,” Walsh said. “Because until we have gender equality, no manager will be more accommodating of women, give women more flexible hours, being more understanding, promote women, unless we create an atmosphere in a society where men and women are viewed equally and paid equally, and given equal opportunities for advancement.”

She went on, “So what can managers do promote equality? Promote flexibility, don’t discriminate against people who have to take time out of their career – men or women – to do child rearing. We can’t exist as a society without kids.”

“Rebrand what it means to be professional. Being professional doesn’t mean not being human.” – Lisa Traverse, Alliance Corporation

The discussion shifted to the definition of flexibility. Traverse said she’s fortunate her husband’s company offers dependent sick days, so he is able to take time off to care for a sick child. There’s also the issue of the perception of professionalism, which has been changing during the pandemic – kids and pets encroaching on Zoom calls would have been unacceptable before, where now they’re tolerated. Traverse quoted a friend, who said, “Rebrand what it means to be professional. Being professional doesn’t mean not being human. People are working in their homes, times have changed, things have happened.”

Both audience and panel agree that this crisis offers an opportunity to reshape the workplace in a positive way. Most (89%) of the audience said there is an opportunity, and the remainder were unsure. Nobody said no.

“I don’t think there’s any going back,” Walsh said. “Covid has opened the door, so what that means I think for women at home with children and parents working is something different. But I don’t think we’ll return to the standard nine to five in the office. There’ll be a blended mix, a hybrid. I don’t think anyone really knows what it is anymore. Because right now we’re all ‘you can work whenever you want’. And with children, you can’t work your full-time job for the most part and take care of your child at the same time. The two don’t match. So we have to have childcare for people who do want to be at home and have young children in order to have an economy that grows and a lifestyle that people can value.”

“I think it’s taught people that they can trust that people are working. My experience has been that there’s been a lot of concern that people are not working when they’re working from home. But now this extended long period of that has shown that obviously they’re working, so you shouldn’t have to worry,” Traverse added.

Recovering from the disproportionate number of women losing their jobs is a knotty problem, and both panelists agreed that it will need government support in the form of retraining and affordable child care.

“So what can we do? We need programs, we need support, we need, as a society, to change our perspective on what are gender specific roles,” Walsh said. “Maybe as this world becomes more nonbinary that will help do that. And some of the studies show that men are equally happy to be at home, they just never had the opportunity. They’re equally happy to spend time with their kids. So I think if we can instill that behavior and change it and create a better conscious awareness of gender inequality, then women could do anything. We can change the world.”

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