Statistics point to the disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19 on women workers. A report by the International Labour Organization published in June found that women are at a greater risk of unemployment because more women than men globally are employed in the worst-hit sectors, notably in hospitality and retail. The UN agency warned that the pandemic could reverse decades of advancement for women in the labour market and worsen gender inequalities.
Aside from higher unemployment risks, school closures and stay-at-home orders have also increased care demands on women, putting pressure on their mental wellbeing. A study by the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Zurich on US and UK workers found that in April when lockdown measures were in place, women spent more time in childcare and home-schooling compared with men.
How are business and finance leaders addressing these impacts and supporting gender equality in the workplace?
Business and finance leaders at a recent virtual panel discussion, Women Empowerment: Lessons From West to East, organised by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, said one way is to recognise the added pressures female employees may have to care for their families.
“Just because they work from home doesn’t mean I have access to them all day,” said Kasturi Wilson, FCMA, CGMA, and deputy CEO of Hemas, a Sri Lanka conglomerate, on the virtual panel.
“I needed to be respectful of their time, but how do you get effective outcomes? I had to sit down with the team and discuss, ‘These are the things we need to do, but how do we allocate time [for them]?’.”
Wilson added that during the lockdown months, she has had to structure her workday differently because of how the team was working at different hours in the day.
Similarly, Charly Landy, FCMA, CGMA, Ph.D., senior finance director at pharmaceutical company GSK in the UK, said on the virtual panel that because of the increased time commitment to care for her young children and manage household responsibilities during lockdown, she was able to empathise even more with other mothers of young children on her team. As a team leader, she felt responsible for the mental wellbeing of her team.
She added that the ability to be vulnerable and communicate transparently have also been crucial for many leaders during this pandemic.
“Typically, in terms of leadership, [women] have qualities … as generally being very authentic … transparent, actually showing vulnerabilities, which are quite unique to women,” Landy noted.
She noted that some of these leadership traits are seen in how female leaders of countries have communicated and responded to the pandemic.
“I would hope that [these] have been recognised as powerful leadership qualities which are incredibly valuable, and we should take [them] forward,” Landy said.
Panel moderator Irene Teng, executive vice-president–Global Markets at the Association, said that COVID-19’s impacts extend beyond health aspects, challenging the fundamental precepts on which social and economic structures are built.
She said the pandemic is an opportunity to build a more gender-equitable future.
“In the simplest form of words, it [women’s empowerment] is basically the creation of an environment where women can make independent decisions on their personal development, as well as shine as equals in society,” Teng said.
Work-from-home opens new possibilities for women
For one, as more companies have flexible work and remote working policies, these new ways of working can make previously unfeasible roles — due to the travel or time commitment required — more viable for women, said Sarah Ghosh, FCMA, CGMA, a co-founder and director of Onyx AI in the UK.
“These were not seen as men’s roles specifically, but because of the work/life balance issues, women may not be putting themselves forward [for the roles],” she said in a separate email interview with FM.
Ghosh pointed to roles such as division finance manager or director and head of finance that require more leadership responsibilities, a significant time commitment, and increased accountabilities.
“Travel is also an issue. So if this is reduced due to remote working, then this also increases the likelihood of women with childcare responsibilities applying,” she said.
Yasmin Mohd Ramzi, FCMA, CGMA, head of global business solutions at TNB — Malaysia’s largest electricity provider — who was also on the virtual panel, said that women leaders in influential positions should “leverage on the platform to promote diversity, uplift others, [and] encourage others to grow.”
Landy advised women to do “experiments” to test out how it’s like to take on tasks or roles that are considered a stretch.
“This period has been the perfect time to be able to do that, it’s kind of forced in fact,” she said. “Try something that you’re scared of [doing] and have a go at it. It won’t be as bad as you think”.
Wilson concurred, adding that at one point in her career, she was told to move from a finance role to be the head of an IT division.
“You need to just be OK to push out there and not be too jaded with the unconscious biases people have,” she said. “With small experimentation and small successes, you’ll get more confident”.
— Alexis See Tho (Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine associate editor.