Gender bias, double standards, mental and physical dangers affecting women in the workplace are nothing new, which is exactly the issue. In many ways, the COVID pandemic has highlighted challenges and opportunities for women in the workplace. In preparation for IWD2021, I invited Hannah Piterman, an expert on ethical leadership, diversity, and gender equality, to discuss these issues with me on The Job Hunting Podcast (episode 72).
Then we found ourselves with our interview booked in the middle of what was possibly one of the worst weeks I can remember, regarding allegations of sexual misconduct and rape of working women in politics in Australia and overseas. Add to that the kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, the petition detailing thousands of alleged sexual assaults in NSW schools, and the resurfacing of historical allegations of rape against an Australian federal minister…
Women in Australia and around the world, if you feel like there’s not much to celebrate this International Women’s Day, you’re not alone. I feel like that too.
Hannah and I recorded the interview a week ago, and the news and details have changed since then. And will continue to change in the future. However, we feel there are important points made in this interview that you should listen to and reflect on, and I will describe some of them below.
The pandemic has highlighted the precarious nature of low-paid workers in the gig economy, who cannot afford to stop working - they need to put food on the table, have several jobs at once, and are the most exposed to COVID transmission: uber drivers, cleaners, supermarket casual workers, casual security guards, casual hotel workers, nurses, and so on. The best health policies in the world cannot operate if our welfare and industrial relations systems are not in place to support them, and the workforce does not have the financial security they need to stay home when they feel sick.
This is brought about by the gig economy, where people are paid casual rates; Hannah says, “we collided with this gig economy, and we collided with a society that had been seemingly doing well and everybody having a job. But what sort of job and what sort of conditions?”
Income inequality has been on the increase, but it was ignored or mismanaged by governments and businesses. The pandemic brought all of the issues to the surface. Gig workers are the most exposed and at risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission. But they have to have three jobs to make ends meet and have no leave allowances. They can’t work from home.
Hannah and I also discussed that so many front-line workers are women: teachers, kindergarten workers, nurses, cleaners. And this led us to our second topic.
The first article that I read about how the pandemic affected women more than men was a study showing that female academics produced fewer articles than previous years and compared to the output during the pandemic from their male counterparts. Why? The assumption is these women are at home taking most of the chores of being a parent.
Another early analysis which I felt was spot on was Annabel Crabb’s article: on why the coronavirus has left Australian women anxious, overworked, insecure — and worse off than men again. This was written back in May 2020 and already showing a trend that coined the pink recession.
“The recognition that women do provide the domestic labor...came to the fore. They [also] provide emotional labor, and they are the ones who multitask with family needs and family responsibilities. And even though they [the couple] may both be working full time, it's the woman who carries the responsibility and the load of the family. He might do the shopping, but often, he relies on her to provide the list. It's that sort of dynamic that COVID just really exposed.” Hannah states.
So, during the pandemic, we have seen women lose their jobs more often than men. We also know that women are paid less in feminized industries. Somehow these female workers and female labor and industries accept lesser rights and lesser conditions. Add to that the fact that many of them are working casual jobs, and you can see that women are not coming out of COVID having benefited very much at all.
Working from home may have its difficulties, but on the upside it some found it much easier to juggle without the everyday rush in the morning, getting the kids to school, and the long commute to the office. In fact, Glint, an HR platform owned by LinkedIn, surveyed 9 million people between December 2019 and December 2020, and the results show employee happiness is up by 5.4%. The analysis points out to people finding meaning and purpose at work and is interesting considering most of them were possibly working from home. On the other hand, the same Glint survey showed that burnout levels were up 4% in the same period, with an incredible gender bias: women were 20% more likely to say they experienced an "overwhelming workload" than men. The suggestion is that their source of rising burnout may be related to child care and household responsibilities that are, in general, disproportionately taken on by women. And this is not only in Australia or the U.S.; it’s around the world.
In pre-pandemic times, women were the ones working part-time or flexibly, not men. Although this is a generalization, and there are stay-at-home men, men's propensity to choose to be the stay-at-home parent is still very low. Hannah says, “even when men are offered flexibility, they don't take it up because guys who take it up are seen as not senior management material. So fathers arrive home when the kids are asleep and leave the next day before they wake up. They spend the weekend trying to make up for the lost time with their children and spouse, even though they are exhausted and need some sleep.”
Flexibility and career advancement have always been problematic for women, and often one would exclude the other. Women who are career-driven and ambitious are always feeling guilty. Whatever they do, there’s an assumption they could be doing “it” better. “You just got to lean in, do better, work harder, improve yourself, and that's what it takes - but it ain't so,” says Hannah.
Since March 2020, we have seen many white-collar workers, men, and women, working from home and working flexible hours to juggle homeschooling and other parenting activities. Mum and dads are enjoying the time they can spend with their children instead of the long commute. People have taken up hobbies, exercise, and as lockdown measures ease, we are seeing many people reluctant to go back to the office.
When a woman in power makes a mistake, she falls. When men make mistakes, it's an opportunity to learn. Double standards we see in the private and public sectors send confusing messages. The leadership that talks about closing the gender gap and providing a safe workplace, and then behave in a way that makes women feel vulnerable and singled out - that seems to be the constant maze we find ourselves in, year after year.
Hannah and I also discuss what it means to have executive presence, a subjective concept often defined historically by what we have perceived leadership to be and look like. “Executive presence is a very subjective phenomenon. When you think about what gravitas means, how she communicates a notion of wisdom, this is all very subjective.”, says Hannah. An example is when we discuss what it means to have a compelling communication style. A compelling communication style is probably subjectively defined as how the men communicate, not how women communicate.
Many sectors and workplaces have certain cultures that are not safe for women to work in. Let's take the example of the parliament. There are no infrastructures, and there is no human resources department for these staffers. And this just going back to the, 'he said, she said,' subtext of that, the reductionist in it. We know from the statistics that people, not just women, but women, in terms of those upon which harassment is perpetrated, outnumber men by far, but people stay silent because careers are ruined. Opportunities are ruined. Your name is bandied around, and once it's out there, it's never forgotten. Employment prospects are ruined.
We need leaders who can take swift action when allegations are brought forward, to protect the alleged victim and the rule of law; the two need to go hand in hand. Victims need to be believed just as much as the people need to be innocent until proven guilty. The two go hand in hand.
I have 20+ years of experience in managing people. I've had a fair share of staff issues I’ve dealt with, from domestic violence to reporting sexual harassment at work. As a manager of people, you have to know that this will be something you need to deal with and that you need to be ready to deal with it well. You need to be the leader you're supposed to be for your people, and it's not easy. I would recommend that you have a plan ready, develop a scenario planning, identify the best possible way to support your staff, and ensure you are taking the right measures when the time comes. Believe me, from experience, I can say you don’t want to be caught by surprise when a situation presents itself. You want to be ready.
Frankly, I didn't feel much support around me to help me deal with situations I’ve had to deal with. I was learning as I was going through very tough issues facing my staff. I've never had any education to deal with the issues I was facing. If it was really stressful for me as a manager, imagine your staff experiencing the issues themselves. So again, if you are also in a leadership position, get ready now. Know whom to call for help and what steps you need to take for each of the, unfortunately, most common and stressful personal issues your staff may come to you for help.
For her research towards her book, published in 2010, Hannah went into organizations to analyze why women were not rising and why it was difficult to get women to become organizations' leaders. The answer, she found, was linked to organizational culture: “the 24/7 work culture, the culture of scrutinizing women, the culture of not valuing women's intelligence, the culture where women feel the need to hide their pregnancy they want to get to partnership or seniority.”
I ask Hannah, has much changed since then? The answer is yes and no.
Women are still being scrutinized and judged harder than men. But we have started accepting men and women in the workforce don’t need to fit a mold or stereotype. And something as fundamental as access to childcare will be one great example of future action both government and businesses can take to facilitate women's entry into the workforce in a way that isn't killing them of exhaustion along the way.
We keep saying this, and again, it’s an issue. But here we go: we have a long way to go.
I hope you find this episode useful and help you reflect and develop actions and plans for your future career.
If reading this blog or listening to this episode has raised any issues for you, you can contact a reputable service such as, in Australia, 1-800- RESPECT or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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Hello, I’m Renata Bernarde, the Host of The Job Hunting Podcast. I’m also a virtual career coach, job hunting expert, and career strategist. I teach professionals in the corporate, non-profit, and public sectors the steps and frameworks to help them find great jobs, change, and advance their careers with confidence and less stress.
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