Written by Gordon Watson

gender parity

This post piece was originally published by South China Morning Post on 30 April 2020.

While society has made commendable improvements towards the vision of gender parity, the COVID-19 outbreak has both shone a harsh spotlight on neglected equality gaps. In some areas, gender parity is rolling backward. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa taught a painful lesson we cannot forget: while an economy might eventually recover, men’s incomes will return to normal faster than women’s [1]

While this assessment might seem overly pessimistic, the sad reality is that there are already abundant signs of COVID-19 disproportionately affecting women.

We can start following the chain of impacts that begin with school closures. As hundreds of millions of students across Asia settle into study from home, we can already see it is the female partner who typically provides most of the informal care despite having their own “work from home” responsibilities [2]. What’s more, this fall-back on outdated gender assumptions cripples the ability of women to find economic opportunities for the whole family [3]. These changes come against the backdrop of a world where women globally do almost 2.5 times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. Additional caregiving responsibilities for home schooled children make it all the harder to maintain paid employment.

The economic impact of this on business is huge. Across Asia, a disproportionate amount of business expertise lies in women. As of 2017, women between the ages of 18-24 earned more than 2/3 of all master’s degrees, meaning there were 167 women with master’s degrees for every 100 men. Furthermore, the number of Asian women with a master’s or doctoral degree has surpassed that of Asian men.

Yet education doesn’t alter the fact that when a family becomes sick, women are ten times more than likely to stay home and tend sick children or elderly parents. In the US, there are five times as many single mothers as single fathers, and this number translates into missed workdays for mothers [4]. That doesn’t help struggling mothers, families, or build efficiency for businesses.

Yet, of course, women are doing far more at the COVID-19 front lines apart from  take care of the home schooling or home care needs of their families. Worldwide, 70 percent of health and social service providers are women and women comprise 92 percent of nurses [5]. While non-healthcare jobs wane around the world, these women face unprecedented challenges of social stigma and fear from their communities, making it difficult for them to secure day care support while they work. Discrimination and ignorance is handicapping our COVID-19 response. This is why additional support, such as targeted insurance products, need to be tailored to the realities of front line female medical responders.

As a business leader, I often hear that artificial intelligence or machine learning will somehow fix social problems. COVID-19 is making it clear that unequal access to technology is exasperating gender inequality.

Telecommuting shouldn’t be gender-specific, but it has become a fundamental issue of equality. Women are up to 31 percent less likely to have internet access than men in some countries, and there are 327 million fewer women than men owning a smartphone. These factors exclude girls from remote schooling or women from remote working. Access is also blocked when women’s gender bars them from internet access for reasons of cost, socialisation, and family pressures.

COVID-19’s relentless exposure of inequality provides us with a unique and unprecedented opportunity. Consider how the #MeToo movement galvanised a new awareness of power imbalances behind the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women. COVID-19 is driving awareness around the broader issues faced by women in society. Powerful and positive transformation is possible as the world expands the perspective on equality and productivity from the office to the home and comes to understand the inseparable link between the two worlds.

Businesses that cannot help address the disproportionate contribution and burden on women will find themselves losing both productivity as well as the valuable insights, talent, and perspectives that diversity provides.

It’s never been clearer that the competitiveness of a company – or indeed, an economy – is so dependent on equality in the broader community.

Women are a key nexus in how value is shared and created between a company and the local community — and so much more value can be unlocked when the roles and responsibilities of men and women are carefully re-assessed and more equitably distributed. The virus hasn’t just drawn attention to our need for diverse supply chains — it is relentlessly highlighting the weaknesses in our lack of inclusivity in how we measure, support and produce social value.

It is well established that diversity drives business growth, performance, and innovation. Basic steps that companies can take, such as ensuring gender parity in pay or increase the number of women in leadership, have never been so definitive in the value they bring to both business and the community.

When corporates demonstrate the value of diversity, it drives social transformation. This ties to the central tenet of Creating Shared Value (CSV): we need to recognise and capitalise on policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of corporates while improving social and environmental conditions in the community, thereby unleashing the full potential of a society.

We can’t afford to go backward: the value of diversity and inclusion is too critical. As our global economies stagger back to life, we need to remember that it had been proven by Deloitte that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively, and that a 10% improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost 1 day a year per employee.

We need to move fast to seize this opportunity. I call for business leaders around the world and across sectors to seize the moment and implement something basic and proven: let’s focus on driving awareness of the childcare needs of employees.

We need to encourage the shifting of norms. Our public stance, as corporates, helps move the cultural needle. On the insurance side, that means ensuring we have products tailored to women — especially those in healthcare — who have become the primary breadwinner and products for men who are primary providers of childcare. AXA has already made moves in this direction, with our support of front-line medical workers.

As employers, we need to tackle barriers to equality for our people. At AXA, for example, we apply the same standard of paid leave for primary and co-parents regardless of gender or adoptive parents. We also guarantee employees can return to an equivalent role with the same salary and benefits structure. Is this working? Since its introduction, we’ve seen a 9% increase in the number of parental leave days taken in Asia. This policy gives our staff the support needed to ensure they can bring their best selves to work.

As businesses that provide a service to society, we need to design and deliver solutions and products that help women stay in the formal workforce. We need to help provide favourable conditions to shift attitudes towards accepting and supporting men as primary care givers.

The scale of the pandemic urges us, encourages us, to think bigger than we have ever done before. COVID-19 is not just a health or economic crisis, it is a true call for all of humanity to strive for empathy and equality. For businesses, COVID-19 makes it clear we need to recognise and capitalise on the connections between corporates and the community.  We need to correctly value the role of women on both sides of this equation, and appreciate the role women have in bridging the gap between the world of corporates and the community.  When companies create the employment conditions, workplace culture, products  and services that facilitate greater gender parity, it will incentivise a flow on effect into communities and homes, and in turn, create greater value for all.

About Gordon Watson

Gordon Watson

Gordon Watson is the founding Chair, Shared Value Project Hong Kong and a Director of Shared Value Project Australia and New Zealand. He is the Chief Executive Officer Asia (including Japan) and a member of the Management Committee of AXA Group.