• Women, including those in very senior positions, are expected to do the ‘office housework’. (Stone RF)Source: Stone RF
Gender expertise is lacking in pandemic planning, outbreak response, and post-pandemic recovery, and this is a problem, writes Dr Karen Morley.
By
Dr Karen Morley

18 Jun 2020 - 9:40 AM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2020 - 10:04 AM

While working from home might seem like a boon to the flexible work agenda, there’s no guarantee that it will stick post Covid-19. The promise is that organisations will realise, finally, that working from home improves not decreases productivity. The danger is because it’s ‘at home’, women’s traditional domain, they will bear the brunt of both family and workplace transition; gains women have experienced in the workforce may be stalled. And there’s a likelihood that the value of women’s contributions will as usual be ‘behind-the-scenes’; out of sight, out of mind.

The gender bias that plays out at work translates from women’s traditional roles; wives, mothers, care-givers. At work, women are commonly demoted to these traditional roles. Female doctors are often mistaken for nurses, female lawyers for paralegals and female professionals of many kinds for personal assistants. We do not expect women to hold leadership roles, despite the fact that, increasingly, they do.

Women, including those in very senior positions, are expected to do the ‘office housework’. In one study 45 per cent of women had been asked to make the tea in meetings. Singtel’s CEO Chua Sock Koong speaks of frequently being mistaken for the secretary.

In one study 45 per cent of women had been asked to make the tea in meetings.

Women want to be warm and helpful, they routinely volunteer to do all sorts of tasks, from making the tea and taking the notes in meetings to supporting others advance their careers.

We expect women to look after the emotional needs of others. In a recent coaching conversation, a leader, let’s call her Jill, was discussing her boss’ behaviour; he was clearly experiencing increased stress as a result of changed work conditions. This was cascading to her; his increased demands and prevarication were grinding her down. The burden to look after herself meant working out how to help him meet his emotional needs. Whose work is that – his or hers?

We expect women to look after the emotional needs of others.

We expect women to do this work, and it is often invisible. When a man offers to help in these ways, we praise him for his contribution. His help is less expected and much more visible. If a woman declines to help, she’s seen as selfish, when a man does, we just think he’s busy.

While women help others out more, it benefits them less. Spending more time on office housework penalises in two ways: it reinforces stereotypes about what we should expect from a woman, and time spent helping others means less time spent helping herself.

At work this pattern is invisible to many, including some women. Or it’s carried as an unwelcome burden, because raising it causes conflict.

At home, women’s physical and emotional housework is not just out in the open, it’s often expected. Whether or not it’s expected, in 2019 Australian women did 66 per cent more unpaid work than men. While men spend more hours in paid work overall women work more than men do; they spend an average of 1.4 extra working months’ per year doing paid and unpaid work combined.

While it is welcome to suppose that with all the family at home in many households the chores will be shared more equitably, it’s too early to tell whether that will be widespread. It is happening; a male leader with a young family has shared with me that one of the real benefits of the current situation is the additional time he is spending with his children and their schooling.

On a broader scale, women are least visible in crisis-decision making. Gender expertise is lacking in pandemic planning, outbreak response, and post-pandemic recovery, and this is a problem.

On a broader scale, women are least visible in crisis-decision making. Gender expertise is lacking in pandemic planning, outbreak response, and post-pandemic recovery, and this is a problem. It’s early days, yet the performance of countries with female heads of state has been noted as comparatively positive.

Given that the impact of the virus is on women and families as well as men, women’s involvement in responses to the virus, including at the highest levels of government, would necessarily mean better solutions for the total population.

Crises bring out our best and our worst. They are incredibly complex to navigate and this is precisely where diverse groups give us their greatest value; diverse groups significantly outperform groups of smart, homogenous individuals. The worst case scenario is that we do not use the crisis to put aside our biases about women that limit their roles and contribution, but entrench them.  The best is that the transitions we are being forced to make will be easier because we include women in decision making, broaden our range of knowledge and perspectives and so design solutions that don’t just get us out of the current crisis, but that make a better world as they do.

Dr Karen Morley is the author of Beat Gender Bias: How to play a better part in a more inclusive world; Lead like a Coach: How to Make the Most of Any Team; and Gender-Balanced Leadership: An Executive Guide. Find out more at www.karenmorley.com.au

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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