Choosing to Challenge

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on March 8. This year we are raising awareness against bias, and taking action for equality.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s that we are granted opportunities to experience unprecedented levels of connection and understanding around ourselves, our peers, our societies, our structures. We may seem (and feel) disconnected due to social distancing but, the way I am experiencing it, connection does occur. In different forms. Through different means. And it grows deeper and meaningful every time it occurs.

Those of us who still work, do so remotely. Incidents like my toddler crashing my business meetings to say hi are the new normal. Other working parents bring their kids to say hi as well. Little J already knows numerous of my colleagues by name, and even asks about the whereabouts of their kids as soon as he sees them again. This is only one of life’s scenarios nobody saw coming. And this is a level of connection we didn’t anticipate.

This new reality brought to us abruptly by the pandemic grants us access to other people’s holistic existence, bridging and blurring the limits of the world of work and life as we used to perceive them. Crisis and uncertainty going hand in hand with empowerment and awareness. Some call it a hot mess. Others focus more on the silver linings of what we are experiencing. Still, there are struggles and notable challenges. And I find it fitting to reflect on them, honoring this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD).

Image: IWD

Today marks the 110th International Women’s Day. 111 years ago, back in 1910, a political activist called Clara Zetkin suggested the idea of an IWD as a vehicle for gender equality at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. Seeds that had been planted a couple of years before that, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote, were ready to bloom. 111 years forward, and we find ourselves at a crossroad.

As we read in the latest Women in the Workplace report published by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, the events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down ,and the choices companies make today will have deep consequences on gender equality for decades to come. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the pandemic, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue, and women in particular have been negatively impacted.

  • Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed
  • Black women in particular, already facing more barriers to advancement than most other employees, are coping with disproportionate amounts of this impact
  • Working mothers continue to work “double shifts”—i.e. a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor, without the supports that made this possible (incl. school and childcare)

As a result, the report concludes that “more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely”. If this is not a wake up call for action, I honestly don’t know what is.

This year’s International Women’s day calls upon to reflect and take actions around:

  • Celebrating women’s achievements | From 2019 to 2021, we have seen the percentage of female CEOs and managing directors increase first from 15% to 20% in 2020, and then a further six percentage points in 2021 (Grant Thornton, 2021)
  • Raising awareness about women’s equality | 80% of countries recorded a proportion of women leaders over the 30% tipping point (Grant Thornton, 2021)
  • Lobbying for accelerated gender parity | With a greater diversity of candidates installed in their operational roles, boards report they feel they are actively future-proofing their businesses (Grant Thornton, 2021)

We have a ton to celebrate for IWD2021. We even applauded the first female US Vice President of color for God’s sake! Still, I personally feel that the aforementioned points merely scratch the surface.

As the Women in the Workplace report concurs, this pandemic and subsequent crisis could set women back half a decade, erasing all the progress we’ve seen over the past years around female participation in the workforce as well as representation in senior management roles. Companies are gradually rising to the occasion, but how many are truly addressing the likely underlying causes of stress and burnout? And at what pace?

Yes, Companies are reportedly eager to:

  • Share valuable information with employees, including updates on the business’s financial situation and details about paid-leave policies.
  • Provide tools and resources to help employees work remotely.
  • Expanded services related to mental health, such as counseling and enrichment programs.
  • Offer training to help managers support employees’ mental health and well-being.

However, fewer companies have reportedly taken steps to actually adjust:

  • The norms and expectations that are most likely responsible for employee stress and burnout.
  • Their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic.
  • Their productivity expectations during the pandemic.

This leaves many employees—especially parents and caregivers—faced with a pivotal choice: fall short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic, or push to keep up an unsustainable pace?

Consistent Feelings at Work in the past few Months (Source: Women in the Workplace 2020 Report)

As we read in the recently published Women in Business 2021 report from Grant Thornton, the pandemic didn’t create this shift. It accelerated existing trends and attitudes towards flexible working, the importance of diversity to innovation and business success, and the need for more empathetic, more transparent leadership. A culture of inclusion fosters innovation.

And this message also hits close to home. In spite of the amazing weather and the generous Paid Maternity Leave scheme, Women in Greece are equally challenged. In the latest Impact of the Pandemic on Daily Life & Work report conducted by the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with its Women in Business (WIB) Committee a similarly grim picture is painted on how family and work life coincide for both Men and Women in Greece nowadays:

  • Under the conditions of threat and staying at home, women are even more strongly undertaking their traditional role of housewife. Almost one in two women engaged more with housework during the pandemic and lockdown. This was the case with two out of ten men.
  • Women will be significantly more affected than men in relation to their future work prospects, facing higher unemployment, over and above the impenetrable glass ceiling.
  • Men readily perceive that their contribution to housework is equal to that of women. However, women do not share this perception, and they state that men contribute equally to housework at a level much lower than men do. A situation potentially leading to rising amounts of stress and debate.

I think I’ve offered enough food for thought thus far to have us all, Men and Women, Moms and Dads alike, pause and reflect. To realize that this year’s IWD calls for far more than mere verbal support and social cheers. More than ever, we need to pull as many strings as we can to challenge the status quo. To listen, and to be heard. To influence decision makers. To take action. To contribute in a meaningful practical way. To come up with suggestions and ideas. To rally support groups and begin the work. Only by stepping up and helping bring about positive change to the environments, ecosystems, teams and families we are members of do we stand a chance to actually witness a gender equal world where we see no point in celebrating women’s firsts.

In her classic Harlem Renaissance novel Their Eyes Where Watching God, we find Zora Neale Hurston‘s powerful quote (one of my personal favorites):

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Zora Neale Hurston

It’s up to us to make 2021 a year that answers the global call for gender equality. The world’s window of opportunity spans no later than…now!

Featured Photo: IWD

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