Reengaging women is going to take more than empty messages of empowerment

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By Chris Rabbitt, Co-Founder of Meeow Online Networking

There’s no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, especially employed women.

In fact, a 2021 policy brief by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), found that the imbalance of job and income losses suffered by women through the COVID-19 pandemic will have longer lasting effects. One of the first indictors is that in 2021 there were 13m fewer women in employment globally than in 2019, a depreciation rate which is not echoed by men.

Although this drop in employed women was predominately caused by their level of involvement in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, there are other, less obvious reasons at play.

Working from home sounds like a flexible dream for many. However, once it became a legal obligation in March 2020, coupled with school closures, it became a nightmare for many. The majority share of childcare and home-school duties fell to many working mothers, leading to higher rates of burnout and a poor work/life balance, especially with many feeling that they had to work later hours to account for “lost time” spent with children.

And what impact did this ‘motherhood penalty’ have on these women? In some cases, it caused a disengagement and a lack of motivation toward the work they were doing. In fact, the added burdens of dealing with a new home-working experience and greater home pressures have pushed roughly 33 percent of working mothers to consider downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs altogether.

As we continue to deal with ongoing impact of the Covid pandemic, employers need to take a serious look at how we can start re-engaging women back into the world of business, the world from which they were shunned so quickly.

If truth be told, empty messages of empowerment aren’t going to cut it.

It’s not a case of feminist ideology

Gender inequality in the workplace is not a new phenomenon of the pandemic. However, this new way of working means there’s never been a greater need to start making real changes.

What’s really important is that we recognise that this isn’t a case of preaching the ‘#girlboss’ mentality. Using slogans can be viewed as being patronising to strong women in positions of power, however inspiring they may be to others. Empty messages of empowerment, wrapped in feminist ideology, are not going to be a catalyst for change. Words cannot be mistaken as action.

Society need progress, and for that to happen there must be an appreciation and understanding of feminism in businesses, government policies and behaviours in order to create a good and equitable working environment.

This effort must be real – there is no place for tokenism. As with all inequalities in the workplace, actions taken for the sake of appearances will do more harm than good. And employers must do all they can to avoid further damaging the reengagement of women, rather than once again making them feel undervalued and misrepresented.

It is certainly not a case of hiring one woman to a leadership role ‘to fill a quota’ or use her to demonstrate how the company is a shining light of female empowerment and progression. Women have become hardened to this transparent attempt at looking good without putting in any of the foundations in place.

Instead of the tokenistic approach, we need businesses to start providing the right infrastructure and levels of support to accommodate, educate and aid the development of an inclusive work culture. Both men and women need to be comfortable with the idea of feminism, to understand that it’s not about taking down men to raise up women. It’s about creating a culture where both women and men have their opinion valued and are given the same opportunities, regardless of their outside commitments or gender.

Will it work? Can we reengage women in the workplace after they were treated so wrongly? Where do we even start?

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Start by letting go of the ‘seen to be heard’ ideology

Hybrid working is set to be the new normal for many. However, research shows that while 79% of women are choosing to work from home, only 64% of men are doing the same. With such a gender disparity occurring in the office, inequalities are inevitable. It is down to management to ensure that being physically present, or presenteeism, isn’t being rewarded.

The right culture and structure need to be in place so that those choosing to work from home are not seen as less committed, or work shy, which could result in fewer opportunities of promotions or informal career advancing networking than their office-bound peers.

There must be an understanding that those who choose to work from home are not doing so to have an easy life. For many, both male and female, the removal of a daily commute saves money, allows them more time with their family or to spend on hobbies, or enables them to work around their children. With the often-astronomical cost of childcare, decreasing this outgoing through more time at home will actually encourage more women into the workforce. Ultimately, women are choosing to be at home for reasons other than to be a stay-at-home mum or a housewife. This makes them no less committed to their jobs.

If there is a bias toward those employees who are present in the office, it can be perceived as a gendered one, as women are more likely to choose work from home. It is one which makes them choose between their preferred working environment or career progression, which in turn leads to disengagement.

Employers need to be committed to rewarding based on merit not presence and establish inclusivity no matter what environment employees choose to work within.

Focus on personalised one to ones over generalised

There aren’t many situations where one size fits all, so why should it be the case in business? How can anyone possibly benchmark a person’s success against another if they both working from different locations in different environments? The problem is many do.

So, how do we customise the work experience, without crippling productivity? A good example sits within the manager-team relationship. One-to-ones should be tailored to each employee so that goals are specific and achievable, and rewards can be given to fit. Perhaps attending more virtual networking events for the remote business manager could be a suitable goal, compared to physical event attendance for the office-based manager.

Embrace virtual networking

Pre-Covid, women faced bias and challenges on multiple levels in business. Networking is just one example of a growth opportunity that proved particularly difficult for many.

Why? Women felt like their presence wasn’t validated. Networking events tended to highlight the stereotypical ‘man’s world’ of business. Research has shown that these subtler types of exclusion lead to women not being able to make as strong a network as their male counterparts. This wasn’t helped by men naturally preferring to communicate with other men either. Women therefore generally attended fewer face-to-face events and those that did, felt excluded.

The good news is, online networking really came into its own in the pandemic and continues to thrive, particularly in the last year with face-to-face events being cancelled.

The major advantage to online networking is that some events are held with a smaller number of people, normally only 4-5, which gives everyone equal time to talk, and creates less of an opportunity for selective conversations – or for people to interrupt or talk over another attendee.

Allowing fluid and clear communication between all parties will not only create opportunities for each participant but also will give the unengaged woman her voice back. And hopefully her passion for her role and employer.

Online networking has the potential to reinstall a sense of confidence in women. Networking no longer needs to be a stuffy room filled with suits. It can be done in the space you work best in, what’s more empowering than that?

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