23 Jul 2020

It is indisputable that when women are given responsibility and power, problems get solved. Women are more collegiate, compassionate, eco-minded and more likely to listen to a range of views. They are less inclined to force their views on a group and instead work towards a consensual approach. This is not true for all women, and the reverse is not true for all men, but it is a strongly researched truth across the genders.

Few people could argue against more female empowerment. We need to collaborate and harness the energy and mental power of the under-represented 50% of our global population to solve the multiple problems that face our world. We have only to look at the UN’s millennium and sustainability goals to see how little progress has been made in solving poverty, reducing greenhouse emissions, and creating a more just society.

However, when we try to empower women, we do it in a way that was designed for and favours men, and then wonder why we fail. It is very much time for a new approach, and COVID-19-induced changes may well provide the impetus.

Despite having traits needed by today’s world, women are disadvantaged by traditional models of work. On average, they are less ambitious and self-aggrandising, and lack confidence in their own abilities. They still overwhelmingly carry the burden of the home and childcare. They notice what needs to be done and carry the mental stress associated with issues such as meal preparation and ensuring kids have clean clothes. These issues may seem trivial, but they are multiple and oil the wheels of community and family. This work and its associated mental strain is rarely valued or even recognised, by the people and institutions that run our world.

In addition to disproportionate household responsibility, women are likewise constrained biologically. They carry and bear children, breastfeed for months, have monthly periods, go through the menopause, and are more prone to sudden and dramatic hormonal changes.

“And yet, despite all these differences and the additional burdens borne by women, somehow society remains surprised at the persistency of gender gaps in boardrooms and senior levels of academia.”

Executive jobs in politics, industry, and academia, invariably require people to relocate, work long hours and behave in an assertive manner. While extraordinary women, sometimes with extraordinary partners, do succeed in this environment, it remains rare. The average female faces hurdles at every step. It starts at school, primarily in the teenage years.

Despite the good intentions of educators, girls inevitably suffer discrimination. They may be put off science and technology subjects by peer pressure and lack of support, but also by feeling inadequate. Boys are often given technology-related presents from an early age and involved in DIY and technology projects at home. In a co-ed school there is no allowance for girls suffering pain and embarrassment from monthly cycles and changing bodies; something that can put them off partaking in sport.

“Compare that with the enlightened training given to the USA women’s soccer team in the last World Cup, where hormonal cycles were carefully integrated into training schedules.”

When entering the world of work, women are further disadvantaged by conscious or unconscious bias against them. Research funded by Melissa Gates found that even when CVs were anonymised, men were still favoured by recruiters, because male applicants used more confident words about their abilities and their ambitions. It was the same with grant applications in academia. Women spoke openly about the possible drawbacks and risks associated with their projects, whereas men tended to be overly bullish about outcomes. Even the women recruiters more often chose male applicants.

The hours people are expected to work, the relocations and extensive travelling that often accompanies job offers, plays against women. When single, or even when partnered but childless, women often cope in this environment, and learn to live with sexual innuendo, being overlooked for promotion, and being paid less than men, doing the same job. However, when children come along, or aged parents become more needy, more women drop out of senior positions and revert to less skilled and lower paid jobs.

Prior to COVID-19, it was predominantly women who worked from home, and they did so for all the reasons described above. They could not shoehorn their lives into a 9-5 paradigm, or work the long hours so often expected, or relocate to get a better role, or cope with the traditional office or tradie environment.

“Women have found creative ways to make money from home: blogging, selling their skills or products online, throwing sales parties and attending markets as stallholders.”

Some do very nicely, but it can be a precarious existence. Usually, there is no safety net for such women; they rarely accumulate much in the way of super and have no income when sick or need a break. Also, skilled freelancers working online can find themselves competing with people from low-income countries who consistently undercut Western rates. Carving out a profitable niche for oneself in such an environment, can be tough.

Equality advocates properly highlight the problems of zero hour contracts, and exploitation of casual employees. However, these people are visible in the economy, whereas women working for themselves from home, who can find themselves earning less than the minimum wage on Airtasker, Freelancer, Peopleperhour and similar domains, are invisible and unable to rely on employment regulations.

In a post-COVID world, my hope is that we may move to a new model of work.

“A model in which people can choose to work from where it is most convenient, aided by modern technology, without the necessity for co-location.”

They can manage their own time and need not be sat at a computer or plying their trade for five or six days a week from 9 to 5. A world in which part-time, shared roles and other flexible ways of working, are normal and enabled by all companies. It has its downsides; the boundaries between work and home become blurred, work stresses are harder to switch off and isolation can be a problem. But many people are already embracing this home-work integration, as a more efficient, empowering, and inclusive way of working.

Before COVID, just 6 months ago, I contacted a tax consultant and asked if we could have a telephone or Skype consult, to save me the hours it would take to get to his place of work, park, meet and drive home. I was met with a blank refusal and some hostility. Now, someone with that lack of flexibility would almost certainly be considered an outlier. More changes must follow, in the home, educational institutions and the working environment, but perhaps we have made some important steps in the right direction.

The next challenge is to bring the rest of the world with us, including countries where women are consciously and deliberately disadvantaged. Let us look to Scandinavian countries to learn from their models, and to remarkable female role models such as Jacinda Arderns and Christiana Figueres.

“At Inclusive Creatives we are already enabling woman and other disadvantaged folks, to contribute and work in a way that suits them.”

Our clients benefit from the motivation and ideas of everyone with ability, not just those that fit the traditional working model. Underestimate them at your peril!

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