From WWll to COVID-19, women have always led through crises
This could be good news for equity in a post-pandemic workforce
In a matter of months, the world’s attention has turned almost exclusively to the fight against COVID-19, with still unknown, hitherto unimaginable impacts to every facet of society.
We’ve also seen disparities pronounced and exacerbated by this novel disease, which disproportionately impacts already vulnerable populations, including women. Rates of domestic violence have risen. Women carry a greater burden managing child care, elder care and work at home. And women comprise a majority of nurses and frontline workers who are uniquely susceptible to infection.
Even so, it’s hard to know the real and lasting impact of outbreaks on women. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez writes that 29 million papers were published during the Zika and Ebola epidemics; less than 1% addressed gender.
But just as this pandemic is exposing long-neglected inequities in our systems, it may also afford an opportunity to transform them.
Prior to the pandemic, many of the most traditionally masculine industries — health care, technology, media, politics and science — were in a moment of profound self-reflection as the #MeToo movement exposed rampant sexism at all levels of the hierarchy. And #MeToo didn’t just manifest as a rebuke of sexism in the workplace; women, too, were grappling with their own professional identities. What does it mean to be a woman in leadership? How much assimilation to the prevailing patriarchal systems are we willing to tolerate to climb the ladder? How does imposter syndrome and bias stymie women’s advancement?
As quickly as #MeToo started, however, it ended. And with the current and all-consuming focus on fighting a global health crisis, any momentum gained seems to have fizzled. But if we’re serious about addressing the disproportionate inequities experienced by women within and beyond this pandemic, our focus on gender equity in the workplace — particularly in scientific, medical and political arenas — warrants resurgence. Indeed, the crisis of this moment could be the very catalyst needed to alter gender and power dynamics at work.
As long observed, epidemics can have a tremendous impact on social and political stability, in part because they tend to expose deeply hidden inequities or injustices, leading people to think about and address difficult questions. After the American Civil War, Susan B. Anthony and a group of women activists established the Women’s Loyal National League, successfully calling for the end of slavery and full citizenship rights for newly freed Blacks. Within 2 years of the 1918 influenza pandemic, women in the U.S. earned their right to vote. Shortly after World War II added millions of women to the labor force, the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, and although ultimately failed in the Senate, paved the way for numerous states to develop protections for women in the workplace.
Today, COVID-19 seems poised to similarly make its mark.
First, COVID-19 is changing the expectations and possibilities of how we work. When we once heard diatribes of the impossible, our systems have revolutionized. With more and more people working remotely, we’re awakening greater awareness and acceptance of our roles as professionals and parents and caregivers and jugglers. And the traits so stereotypically assigned to men — like physicality and extroversion — mean little in a video conference. Moreover, “masculine traits” like authority, decisiveness and competition are taking a backseat to the skills we often ascribe to women, like collaboration, consensus-driven decision-making, and a proclivity for empathy.
Secondly, the embrace of these traits is challenging our perceptions of leadership. Women are stepping into leadership roles and, in doing so, unapologetically owning their power and relevance: German Chancellor Angela Merkel; New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada; Deborah Birx, Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The list is long. These leaders, among others, have been effective in controlling rates of infection and flattening curves. In the process, they’re redefining what strong leadership looks like. Merkel, for example, has been praised for her candor and transparency in updating the nation. Ardern has earned a following for compassionate communication, taking to Facebook Live for conversations from her home. Norway’s Erna Solberg held a press conference for children to reassure them that feelings of fear were normal and OK.
This is especially promising, as historical “solutions” to addressing gender inequities in fields like science and medicine often target women for leadership training, implying that women must adopt a prescribed and masculinized skillset to ascend the ranks. The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 force us to interrogate conceptions of what those skills are, as well as characteristics inherent in strong and effective leaders. Where we once goaded women to “man up” to be successful, we may well find ourselves imploring a kind of “womaning up” to achieve results.
Like the pandemics before it, COVID-19 has and will continue to shape our society and social consciousness. We have agency in framing the direction these changes take. First, however, we need to understand the gendered impact of this moment. In a piece in The Lancet, Clare Wenham, PhD, and colleagues write, “If the response to disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 is to be effective and not reproduce or perpetuate gender and health inequities, it is important that gender norms, roles and relations ... are considered and addressed.”
We couldn’t agree more. Indeed, as we reflect on the recent centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, what better homage to the women who, in the weary aftermath of the Spanish Flu, continued their activism at the ballot box. We can similarly leverage some momentum gained now to redefine what it means to lead for both women and men.
- CNN. Gen X women were already exhausted, then came a pandemic. https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/20/health/generation-x-coronavirus-calhoun-kalita-wellness/index.html. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- Deutsche Welle. Coronavirus and Germany: Why the world is looking to Angela Merkel. https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-and-germany-why-the-world-is-looking-to-angela-merkel/a-53236840. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- Forbes. What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders. https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/#4d35cd813dec. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- New York Times. A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- The New Yorker. How Pandemics Change History. https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-pandemics-change-history. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- Reuters. Norway PM tells kids: 'It is OK to feel scared' during coronavirus. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-norway-children/norway-pm-tells-kids-it-is-ok-to-feel-scared-during-coronavirus-idUSKBN2131NE. Accessed Oct. 6, 2020.
- Wenham C, et al. Lancet. 2020;doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30526-2.