In the earliest days of the pandemic, women around the world watched their employment opportunities and career paths vanish in front of them at an alarming rate. Largely hidden amongst the urgent health concerns, dramatic shifts in our daily routines, and shutdowns, women continued to disappear from the workforce.
From school closures and lockdowns to shouldering the majority of increased responsibilities at home, women’s already untenable balance between work and caregiving became impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of supportive policies, many women ran out of options to stay in the workforce. Women lost more than 64 million jobs in 2020 alone, and as schools remain partially and fully closed women have had disproportionately fewer options for returning to work. This amounts to $800 billion in lost earnings and threatening decades of progress toward gender equality.
As governments and workplaces begin planning for a “return to normal” in 2022, one thing is clear: we need a new normal for women professionals.
I’ve found that the road to professional growth is not linear for many women. The childcare burden is a critical issue for women all over the world. In the U.S., it was very difficult to raise my daughter — childcare was unaffordable while I was a fellow in pediatric infectious diseases and my husband was pursuing residency training. That situation has not changed in more than 25 years. A true economic recovery will require redesigning workplaces for women, with more women at the helm showing how to do it.
A critical first step in this process is increasing gender parity and diversity in leadership. In many ways, our current policies mirror the policymakers who designed them: Globally, of the top decision-makers in governments, women only represent 26 Heads of State and 25% of national parliamentarians. In my sector, global health, women represent 25% of leadership, despite making up 75% of the workforce.
At a company and community level, we are learning that both diversity in decision making leads to better outcomes—in part because women and other underrepresented groups bring a different lived experience to their work. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. That’s one reason reimagining the workplace to be more inclusive and supportive of women leaders is essential to pandemic recovery and economic growth. Gender diversity in leadership is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
We have a long way to go to make gender equality in the workplace a reality, but care policies consistently stand out as having the greatest potential to dramatically increase women’s ability to work and advance their careers. Inflexible hours, unaffordable or nonexistent childcare, and harmful norms about caregiving are preventing women – who still bear the vast majority of care responsibilities – from reaching senior positions. As a result, women are often unable to progress to the rooms where decisions about workplace policies are made — creating a vicious cycle of exclusionary policy-making.
Widespread adoption of comprehensive paid parental leave and childcare policies that support working parents of all genders is an important first step toward breaking this cycle. Rethinking policies like these create some exciting opportunities for innovation. Kenyan company Safaricom has received global attention for its innovative parental policies, including extensive paid leave, flexible work hours and breastfeeding rooms, which have translated to more women in leadership and better productivity, motivation, and retention. These types of policies make all parents’ lives easier, and allow women to reach their potential in their careers and flourish in the workplace.
I’m honored to be moderating a discussion on these issues at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, taking place from 15-16 November 2021. The conference will feature two days of panels, interactive workshops, and fireside chats, where we will be challenging our expectations and biases around what effective leadership should look like and discussing ways to reimagine leadership and blaze trails to the decision-making table for women.
I hope you’ll join me to continue the conversation.
– Dr. Anita Zaidi
President of the Gender Equality Division and Director of Vaccine Development, Global Health Surveillance, Diarrhea and Enteric Diseases at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation