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The word ‘shecession’ was coined to describe a recession that disproportionately affects women. The economic fallout from Covid-19 resulted in more job cuts for women due to the types of industries and roles that were most impacted. Additionally, with families in lock down, a lot of women found they were overloaded with extra duties on the home front - juggling home-schooling and child-care with their paid employment, forcing some to leave work or reduce hours to cope.

It has been a global phenomenon and, unfortunately, New Zealand experienced its fair share with 10,000 of the 11,000 job cuts in the June 2020 quarter impacting women.

Understandably, there are concerns the ‘shecession’ has set the clock back on gender equality. But perhaps this huge disruption has also presented employers and employees with an opportunity to take stock so that as we recover, we ensure equality is built-in to all levels of workplace infrastructure. In fact, with the lessons we have learned from operating during Covid, we are better placed than ever to do this. 

Equity swings and roundabouts 

In May 2020, Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter shared the news that New Zealand was on track for achieving the Government’s goal of 50 per cent representation by women on boards by 2021, and according the NZX Gender Diversity Statistics report released in July 2020, last year saw a record number of newly-appointed female directors.

While it’s great to see these targets being met for the country’s most senior positions, there have also been some concerning reports in the past few years that indicate the gender pay gap in New Zealand has been increasing, from 9.2% to 9.3% between 2018 and 2019 and reaching 9.5% in June 2020. A report in September last year, from Strategic Pay 'Understanding Pay Equity and Analysing the Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand' suggests the gap is even wider, at 17.2%, nearly double official figures when looking beyond base salary and taking benefits into account, such as vehicle allowances, Kiwisaver and bonuses.

The ‘shecession’ may have amplified the problems of having a higher proportion of women employed in lower-paying, lower-level and less secure jobs, but the widening pay gap over the last few years shows that all was not rosy on the gender equality front prior to Covid. 

Leaning in and lending support

Randstad has long been a proponent of sustainable life balance, where employees balance their work life with personal pursuits. And while many New Zealand employers had become more open to the concept of flexible work, the dial had not shifted dramatically, at least not until last year. 

Covid forced the issue of flexibility because in many cases there was no choice but to have employees work from home. And, in many of these situations, employers and employees have seen the long-term potential of hybrid workforces, with more flexibility for EVERYONE. 

Why will this help gender equality? Because flexible working is not just for women. When flexibility is offered to everyone, we have more opportunity to redistribute unpaid workloads. In a new normal, where flexibility is not merely a concept but actually part of the workplace culture and mindset, men will be better placed to incorporate kids’ school or sports activities, family care and household duties into their days. Certainly, anecdotal evidence suggests many are already doing it. Kiwi blokes are leaning in, taking a fairer share at home so women can get a fairer share at work.

They are also leaning in at work. Some of the loudest voices I hear on the diversity issue are male voices. Not condescending voices. Not voices paying lip service to a cause. Voices from smart employers who know the benefit of a balanced and diverse workforce in building a strong, resilient, and successful organisation. 

Harvard Business Review says 96% of organisations see progress when men are engaged in addressing gender inequity, compared to only 30% where men are not engaged which is why a truly inclusive culture is crucial to create change.

Choosing to Challenge

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘choose to challenge’, encouraging us all to be responsible for our own thoughts and actions, to call out gender bias and inequity and to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.  

While the majority of Kiwis support gender equality in the home, workplace and society, outdated attitudes still exist. Beyond choosing to challenge deliberately unsupportive behaviour and attitudes we also need to help people recognise and challenge their own unconscious bias. To do this in a constructive and positive way, employers may find it valuable to:

  • Review and reiterate company policies and values – make sure there’s no ambiguity when it comes to expected behaviour within the organisation and ensure your company’s values embody the type of culture you want to build. 
  • Run unconscious bias workshops – to help everyone in the organisation understand what causes unconscious bias, how it can negatively impact workplace culture, how to identify and manage it in themselves;
  • Assemble diverse teams for problem solving – combining staff from a variety of departments, levels and backgrounds is not only a great way to generate a range of ideas but it can also help people appreciate what others have to offer;
  • Solicit feedback – ask employees to provide insight into the company culture as well as challenges or successes they have encountered in dealing with bias so that you can identify areas you may need to address;
  • Provide support and guidance – make sure employees know who they can talk to about challenging situations at work and how to deal them, this may require a range of processes for a range of scenarios.
    All in this together

Our research last year on the impact of Covid-19 on workers and organisations, found that post-Covid, 85% of employers are focused on boosting employee performance and productivity and 36% of employees are expecting significant changes in their workforce. 

Women have been hit hard by 2020 job losses but as we set our sights on economic recovery, we have an opportunity to rebuild workforces with the benefit of new knowledge, new expectations, and revamped systems and processes that will support more balance at work and at home, for women and men. 

The time has come to challenge traditional thinking and change the way we work, for good.