As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, governments are starting to take draconian measures in a bid to slow the spread of the pandemic. Social distancing and the closure of non-essential activities are just some of the measures that are being implemented by the Australian Government, with some State Governments adopting stricter rules to further limit social gatherings. As part of the containment efforts, Victoria has now closed its schools for three weeks, with NSW encouraging parents to keep children at home. There are now more than 300 million children, across 15 countries whose schooling has been disrupted by the pandemic (UNESCO, 2020).
As a mother of a very active four-year old, I wonder how this will impact on my ability to maintain a semblance of sanity as I juggle the requirements of my job as well as ensuring that my daughter is kept engaged in something other than her iPad. And yet, I write this from a place of privilege. I have the facilities to work from home, a boss that has always infused the notion of flexibility from day one and a partner who recognises the need to share the mental load.
Evidence from Ebola, Zika, or H1N1 (Influenza A) however has shown that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by pandemics. They are very much on the frontline and when schools shut down; it is women who bear the brunt of the associated home-schooling responsibilities.
Compounding these inequalities, we are also starting to hear stark warnings of an increase in domestic violence during these periods of high-stress and isolation. It is not a matter of if but when, particularly as China has seen reports of domestic abuse tripling during these periods of isolation (ABC News) and a similar rise was seen during the bushfires across Australia.
Whilst businesses scramble to understand how best to respond to the virus and the economic downturn, they cannot sideline the gendered power imbalances that will play out as we retreat to the confines of our homes. As we rush to remain connected to our teams, we need to ask ourselves if our existing policies are fit for a workforce that may largely be working remotely for the next six months, or more. Will these policies further entrench long-standing inequalities or will they help women as they navigate the complexities associated with working and supporting their children and families during these difficult times?
The answers to these questions may not be straightforward but they cannot be ignored. Business has a fundamental role in addressing these issues and driving progress towards a gender equal world. And with the recent release of the National Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment (AHRC, 2020) finding almost two in five women have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years alone, we have to be at the forefront of finding solutions for today and tomorrow.
There is an urgency and demand for change across all corners of society. The COVID-19 pandemic is simply shining a spotlight on a range of societal issues that won’t go away over the coming months. If anything, those looking will see the glaring nature of these holes and gaps with incredible clarity.
To unpack some of these questions and understand how Australian businesses are tackling gender inequality, the Global Compact Network Australia invites you as we discuss ‘Gender Equality: Moving Beyond Compliance’ from 11.00am – 12.15pm on Monday 31 March 2020. Register your attendance for this free online webinar here.