This past year was one unlike any other in modern history. With 2020 finally behind us, I think it’s important to reflect on some lessons learned along the way.
At first thought, it might seem impossible to list anything positive from this year, but I believe 2020 had lasting impacts on work and equality that are important to recognize, including:
1. Attitudes changed about working from home. Between March and April of 2020, the number of U.S. employees working from home increased significantly. Businesses were forced to quickly pivot to embrace remote work, and a September FlexJobs survey found that 50% of respondents said their employers now have a more positive view of working from home as a result.
2. Work-life balance improved for some. It’s no secret that our workplaces have long needed to be revamped to meet the needs of our evolving workforce. For many workers, 2020 was the first time they experienced increased flexibility in their job, whether that flexibility meant exclusively working from home or adopting a hybrid schedule (partially working from home and partially working from the office). While it’s important to note that many struggled with finding a work-life balance, others felt working remotely had the opposite effect. That same FlexJobs survey said 73% of respondents experienced a better work-life balance due to being able to work from home.
3. The issue of gender quality became more urgent. I know many of you might be questioning me right now, thinking that nothing positive happened with regard to gender equality in 2020. And it’s true that we have lost ground in this area and women are shouldering even more household work and childcare responsibilities during the pandemic. However, I’m finding that these significant inequalities are moving gender equality from a “someday issue” to a “right now” issue. I remain hopeful this means we will begin to see significant progress toward true parity in our workplaces.
As Melinda Gates said during her keynote at the Texas Conference for Women, “In the past, people thought: Oh, this gender equality is a nice-to-do thing, we’ll get to it when we have time.’ No. What the pandemic has exposed is that we have to work on gender. If we don’t work on gender, this economic recovery is going to take far longer.”
It would be naive to think that a new year will erase the previous year’s hardships, and we definitely must be vigilant to ensure we don’t slip back into old habits and allow 2020’s progress and momentum to be undone. I would like to offer three ways that we can avoid this pitfall:
1. Protect workplace flexibility. I believe the massive increase in and acceptance of flexible work arrangements are arguably some of the most positive things to come out of 2020. As we begin to return to “normal,” we must prioritize our employees’ well-being and build flexibility into our workplaces.
By focusing on productivity and job performance instead of office attendance, we have the opportunity to drastically improve our employees’ happiness. It’s a win for employers because they are more likely to retain top talent, and it’s a win for employees who will feel empowered and trusted to perform their job without constant supervision.
2. Share the unpaid workload. Unpaid labor (e.g., cooking, caring for children and family members, household chores, etc.) largely falls to women in our country, and we are nowhere close to equality.
According to The New York Times, if American women were paid minimum wage for the hours of unpaid labor they performed in 2019, it would have totaled $1.5 trillion. Globally, that number is nearly $11 trillion. The Times also reported that for one day in 1975, 90% of Icelandic women refused to cook, clean or care for children; men scrambled to pick up the slack, but the country was still effectively brought to a “standstill.” The Icelandic government passed a law guaranteeing equal pay one year later.
The unequal distribution of unpaid labor had a devastating effect on our country’s workforce in 2020: Almost 2.2 million working women left the labor force between February and October; between August and September, women exited the workforce at roughly four times the rate of men.
We know that our businesses thrive when women hold leadership positions, so it is imperative that we create a more equal distribution of unpaid labor to allow women to remain in the workforce.
3. Work together for equality. At her keynote, Melinda Gates also discussed the importance of male allies in the fight for equality. “I think we need to pull men into the conversation,” she said. “And I think men need to step up and say ‘I am for diversity in my company’ in a serious way.” It’s true that gender equality cannot — and should not — be solely a women’s issue.
According to NPR, NASDAQ recently announced that it wants companies listed on its stock exchange to be required to have at least one woman and one minority or LGBTQ+ person on their boards. Similarly, California’s governor signed a bill requiring companies headquartered in the state to have at least one minority board member, and Goldman Sachs is no longer taking companies public unless they meet the same criteria.
I believe this shows the tide is turning, and the more we work together toward equality, the faster we will reach our goal.
This past year was definitely unique and full of unprecedented challenges. I hope that we are all able to move forward through 2021 with renewed hope and a commitment to carrying with us the lessons learned. As they say, hindsight is 2020.