Covid-19: A call to go further in the fight for gender equality

Covid-19 Before and After: A call to go further in the fight for gender equality - Kevin Beltou, ESSEC Business School MiM alumnus and now studying at Columbia-LSE, looks into gender equality trends pre- and post-Covid-19 and makes the argument for the crucial role deconstruction of gender and racial stereotypes can play.

Kevin Beltou, ESSEC Business School MiM alumnus and now studying at Columbia-LSE, looks into gender equality trends pre- and post-Covid-19 and makes the argument for the crucial role deconstruction of gender and racial stereotypes can play.

Covid-19 Before and After: A call to go further in the fight for gender equality by Kevin Beltou.

Kevin Beltou

What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Women leaders” This article written by the American entrepreneur Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, published in April 2020 in the famous magazine Forbes, shook the whole planet, raising and still raising an immeasurable number of debates and investigations. Using statistical data on the number of deaths due to covid-19 from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, she noted that the countries that have best managed the pandemic – that is, that have contained the number of deaths – are countries led by women. Thus, according to the writer, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Denmark handled the first peak of the pandemic better because they were led by women. The management of this pandemic across these seven countries would have highlighted the existence of an essentially female leadership.  And there lies the matter. Is such a conclusion justified? How has the pandemic given more importance to the role of women in business and society?  

Despite significant achievements in gender equality in society and business since the end of the nineteenth century, the sexual division of labor remains a deep rooted reality

If the struggle for women’s emancipation is not a modern one, but is rooted in a much more ancient temporality, it is only very lately that they succeeded in having political equality, and not without obstacles.

What makes the modern era so crucial in the conquest of equality is the fact that the American and French revolutions of the second half of the 18th century instituted the right to have rights, which changed radically the course or direction of the struggles for women’s emancipation. Let us be clear, women did not wait for these revolutions to initiate their fights but these revolutions allowed a huge progress by providing an arsenal of philosophical and legal weapons before which the reason, this natural light source of truths existing in each individual, could only submit. “Equality”, “citizenship”, “human dignity”, “legal personality” are all concepts that renewed the struggles for women’s emancipation on the juridical level.

Moreover, the commitment of women in the two world wars showed their necessary role in society. Women were not only “White Angels”, in other words nurses who supported the population and the soldiers at the front or at the back during the conflicts. They were not only wartime godmothers who used to write and to send parcels to the soldiers at the front, who used to visit the wounded in the hospitals. The involvement of women in the war effort during the two world conflicts of the 20th century was much more various than one might think. Farmers’ wives, in the absence of their husbands who went to the front, had to take on the hard work in the countryside. In the cities, they had to make up for the lack of manpower in many sectors of activity, delivering mail, driving streetcars, working more than 10 hours a day in the armament factories. Popular culture remembers the Munitionnettes or the figure of Rosie the Riveter.  They were also spies (Edith Cavel, Mata Hari). In the USSR, the mobilization of women during the Second World War was massive, especially in the fighting units as infantry or aviators. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an exceptional sniper and the aviatrix Marina Raskova was the founder of three all-female aviation regiments. The revolutions and the wars have thus largely contributed to give more importance to women in the society and to grant equality. In the business world, except for a few exceptional figures such as CJ Walker, Helena Rubinstein, Elisabeth Arden, Gabrielle Chanel, confined to the cosmetics, perfume and fashion industry, there are very few women business leaders in the past centuries.

Despite significant legal achievements in the political, economic and financial emancipation of women, many gaps in gender equality remain today: significant salary gap, glass ceiling in many professions for women, under-representation of women in executive committees and generally in top management despite initiatives such as the introduction of quotas in France and other countries.

Covid-19 Before and After: A call to go further in the fight for gender parity

Indeed, Covid-19 has revealed the precariousness of the achievements obtained for women after many centuries of struggle and has exacerbated the sexual division of labor throughout the world.

Since April 2020, the UNO alerted in a report on the increase of the reports of violence made to the women and the girls in the world.  This increase was at the beginning of the first wave between 25% for Argentina and 33% for Singapore. France, similarly, experienced a 30% increase in reports of domestic violence during the first containment. An equally significant increase in countries such as Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.

The pandemic, through the implementation of lockdowns, has exacerbated and continues to exacerbate gender inequalities, especially in less privileged social environments: work flexibility measures, the closure of companies and childcare services, the obligation to be confined to a single location, and the choice of essential services are revealed to be much more restrictive for women from less privileged social backgrounds, who only have the choice between keeping on working despite the health risks this entails, or being unemployed. And it should be noted that these measures have a significant effect on girls from large, disadvantaged families whose needs take second place to those of their fathers or older brothers.

These restrictions have a significant impact on the evolution of women in business. Such measures reinforce the complexity and precariousness of their working conditions compared to men. Women in business are more affected than men. A UN report points out that even though both men and women are experiencing an increase in their “unpaid workload,” women are still taking on more childcare, teaching, cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Whether they are employed or trying to run a business, women have been most affected by the closure of childcare or the removal of children from the home.

The pandemic has also highlighted an important issue: the overrepresentation of women in sectors that are underpaid and undervalued but essential to the existence and running of society. Indeed, women are overrepresented in the health, social, education, cleaning, food and distribution sectors. In the European Union, women represent 76% of workers in the health sector. Moreover, 82% of cashiers and 95% of cleaning or home help staff are women. Beyond a few speeches, the crisis has not changed their situation.  The coronavirus has led to an explosion of low-paid and unpaid care work, which is mainly done by women, especially women from groups subject to racial and ethnic marginalization. These are generally women of African and North African ethnicity or descent.

Covid-19 and the deconstruction of gender and racial stereotypes.

The pandemic has not given more importance to the role of women in society and in business, but it has highlighted the urgency of questioning the foundations of the sexual division of labor that give rise to deep and lasting inequalities. It highlighted the need for in-depth work on the collective representations that convey gender and race stereotypes and that, as long as they are not deconstructed, will continue to constitute powerful impediments to the effective realization of legal achievements.

The overrepresentation of women in care activities is thus rooted in very powerful gendered collective representations conveyed and reinforced by education. According to these collective representations, women have predispositions for these activities that men do not have. The care professions would then be women’s professions. A belief shared by both men and women. According to this belief, it would be normal for women to work as nurses, care assistants, midwives, home help, housekeepers, or cashiers because they would have specific and natural qualities for human relations. They would naturally have a concern for others and be more sensitive.

But if the care professions are women’s professions, how can we explain the under-representation of women in professions such as doctors? The collective western thinking likes to imagine the latter as generally being a man who comes with his knowledge and makes a diagnosis and leaves it to the nurse to provide care. The collective thought masculinizes this profession because it is believed that a degree of expertise and responsibility is associated with it, which is the exclusive and natural prerogative of men. The function of a doctor requires aptitudes and qualities that are incompatible with the nature of women: strength, perseverance, and the ability to control emotions.

Moreover, the issue is not only to revalue and better remunerate these care activities, but to tackle the root of the trouble, this over-representation which, on the one hand, stems from stereotypes well anchored in the collective imagination, and on the other hand, contributes to reinforcing them and undermining the effective achievement of equality between men and women. This overrepresentation underlines the impossibility for a long time of our societies to think of women’s paid work in any other way than in a domestic pattern. It is time today not to restrict women to this domestic logic by starting to rebalance tasks within the family home in a fairer way.

This means reconsidering the access, duration and benefits of parental leave in a more egalitarian way: generalizing and making paternity leave mandatory, working to reduce the negative effects of maternity leave for women on their salaries by encouraging companies (especially large companies) to maintain their full pay; focus on the implementation of a real support for pregnant women during and after their pregnancy in order to allow them to balance their life rhythm between pregnancy and work required by the company by having more use of part-time work for example, increase the number of places in nurseries, put an end to discrimination in obtaining a place in a nursery for single women who are unemployed or looking for work, run a campaign to raise awareness among the male-only top management and all employees that pregnancy is not an obstacle to productivity and that the experience of pregnancy enables the employee to acquire new skills, and finally disseminate such a campaign more widely within civil society…

The deconstruction of racial stereotypes, which are linked to gender stereotypes and produce specific inequalities, must also be considered. For many countries, this means recognizing the socio-economic existence of this factor and setting up real studies or statistical surveys to measure the phenomenon in order to adapt the means of struggle. Moreover, it is essential to integrate the educational system into this deconstruction process, in addition to the family home. Perhaps it would even be interesting to strengthen the teaching of the historicity of these inequalities in school programs, thanks to the contributions of biology, history and anthropology, in order to put an end to the myth of the naturalness of these same inequalities. Thus, the deconstruction of gender and race stereotypes is crucial for gender equality insofar as it feeds ignorance and stigmatization and is a source of strong and persistent inequalities.

Kévin Beltou with his article Covid-19 and gender equality.
Kevin Beltou on gender equality

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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