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Advancing Gender Equality – An Unexpected COVID-19 Dividend

How the COVID-19 crisis is changing views of gender social roles

COVID-19 will have many lasting effects on the world. One is a boost for gender equality. There are three inter-related factors that have limited progress towards gender equality: patriarchal societies, gender stereotypes, and unconscious biases. All three have been weakened in the crisis and offer an opening to end decades of stalled progress.

Gender stereotypes are fixed views of men and women. They have always held women back and propelled men forward economically, politically and socially. The world wars shattered the fixed views of men as strong and women as weak, and men as workers, and women as homemakers. Women showed they could “man” the economy and simultaneously manage the home.

Emboldened by their economic contributions after WWI, women successfully fought for the right to vote in 1920. Participation in the process to determine who represented them was key to advancing gender equality. Women’s economic contributions in WWII were even greater and women were again emboldened. In 1973 there were 16 female representatives in Congress (2.7%), up from zero in 1920 and nine in 1945. Supporting female legislators were feminist voices, like Gloria Steinem, that influenced the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. This legislation was meant to put an end to gender discrimination. It only put an end to overt discrimination, like employment ads that said women need not apply. Covert discrimination in the form of unconscious biases picked up where overt left off.

Rosie the Riveter struck in a manly power pose became the symbol of the new woman during WWII. Men went to war and women supported the war efforts at home by again manning the economy. Fast forward a hundred years. Highly educated Doctor Diane and Nurse Emily aren’t working to support men at war; they are the bulk of soldiers on the COVID-19 battlefields. Women are waging this war as bravely and capably as soldiers in any war. Fixed views of men as strong, women as weak, men going to work and women as their domestic adjuncts have been shattered. What has not been shattered is the face of leaders. The female-dominated healthcare industry is dominated by male leadership.

COVID-19 will be another pivotal point in the history of gender equality. Female doctors and nurses dominate the dangerous medical battlefields, and they know it. Decisions are being independently made. Women that may have lacked confidence that limited their suitability for leadership, lack it no more. The world has witnessed that traditional gender stereotypes that see women as unsuited for leadership because they are unable to act assertively, independently, or decisively are archaic. Biases that have perpetuated the myth of the weak female that cannot lead, will continue to resurface, but now, just like racism, there will be others that will call it what it is – sexism. Plain and simple, discrimination against women.

During the pandemic, people working in hospital war theaters were essential. For many couples, husbands manned the homes. This gave them an opportunity to experience the complications of having one job at the office and one at home. Wives witnessed their husbands as quite capable of doing “women’s work.” This has turned patriarchal societies on their ears. Men are supposed to be the essential workers, and women the so-called non-essential workers. Instead, many couples have been forced into something that men and women have been resisting, a 50:50 division of domestic responsibilities. This is upending fixed views of the roles played by men and women. Perpetuating this equal division is crucial for women to target more responsible positions of leadership.

Before COVID-19, many employers were reluctant to permit flexible work options. COVID-19 forced their hands. Leaders have been sharpening their skills for the different challenges of productively managing virtual teams and learning which employees, with or without children at home, work productively. These skills will continue to improve because employers must persist in accommodating social distancing, a higher level of sick leave, and employees reluctant to use public transportation. In the end, more employers will be amenable to flexible work options for two reasons: they know how it can work, and there will be less unconscious bias clouding this decision because instead of being seen as accommodation for working Moms. Moms and Dads will leverage working flexibly. There is a possibility that men partaking in flexible work will suffer greater bias for acting like women. Something similar occurs to men that leverage paternity leave. For women, flexible work options will lessen how many temporarily exit the workforce and damage their long-term career possibilities.

The interrelated factors of patriarchal societies, gender stereotypes, and unconscious biases have held women back for centuries. All of these have been weakened by the performance of women on the front lines in the COVID-19 crisis, changing views of gender social roles, and the COVID-19 forced accommodations for flexible work. Add to this a record 127 congresswomen (24%). All of this enables women to resume forward progress toward gender equality. There has never been a better time for women to be evaluated more fairly for positions of leadership. We need lots of aspiring women to leverage or increase their leadership skills and raise their hands to take the leadership challenge. Nothing will do more for gender equality than more and more women in leadership. Let’s not squander this opportunity.

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