OPINION: What working from home means for women amid pandemic

OPINION: What working from home means for women amid pandemic

By Rachael Onyango

The global pandemic accelerated adoption of technology, that spurred remote working. With the rise of COVID-19 cases, containment measures by governments forced organizations to ground their staff at home.

However, remote working has been the norm for the self-employed e.g. consultants, creatives, freelancers etc. Today, the stark reality is that the traditional central office space, has little to do with productivity, for certain jobs.

What does working from home mean for women?

In 2020, working from home accelerated gender inequalities, since women already do 75% of the world’s unpaid-care work: with schools closed, women are devoting more time to child care and housework than men.

This has implications on their productivity and job satisfaction. It didn’t escape notice that many that fathers in dual-working homes could choose to change work locations to a socially distanced office or restaurant, while mothers can’t afford to do this without seeking help.

A Mckinsey study posits that in the long run, increased childcare burden could see many women exit the labour workforce permanently. This is jarring! Let us understand that objective initiatives like virtual arrangements can produce unequal outcomes for women.

Health and wellness for women declined in the last year. The eliminated daily commute and choice on preferred workspace was expected to reduce stress on employees.However, stress and anxiety are the cornerstone of this remote work period.

While most employees continue to complain of long work hours and blurred lines between work and off work hours, this situation is worse for women who juggle remote work stresses and un-paid care work in the home. This is a workspace health issue that organizations will have to deal with.

Gender based violence (GBV) against women increased due to lockdowns. As many women had to work from home, they are forced to quarantine with abusive partners. Due to the pandemic, financial stress magnified the risks of violence against women.

A non-profit, Healthcare Assistance Kenya reported staggering GBV statistics – a 34% increase in cases in March 2020, skyrocketing to 301% by April 2020.

Making it work

2021 will see a redefined workspace, but mostly for the highly skilled and highly educated workers.

Already, global companies like Facebook and Twitter, announced that employees could work remotely on a permanent basis, while closer home, a global foundation in Kenya has asked employees to work from home, for the remainder of 2021.

How then, can the remote workspace work for women? First, speak to women! Speak to the warm female assistant; speak to the executive woman at the apex.

Bottom line, employers have to ask THE WOMEN of their experiences, and jointly craft a way forward on how the new work environment can work for women.

Employers need to analyze and consider the needs of men and women differently. Remote working is already very attractive for women, but for them to thrive in the new workspace, then their traditional roles have to be taken into account.

Employers need to address unpaid child care by supporting workers experiencing an increased childcare burden. Practically, do not set meetings very early, during lunch time and early evening; these are the times for recurring domestic work and child care.

Organizations have to address mental health issues, many of which are embedded in toxic workspace culture that shifted domiciles from the traditional office into the home.

Investments in mental health resources are wasted, if performance targets and productivity expectations aren’t scaled back to account for the global pandemic and its resultant pressures on women to juggle professional and domestic work.

Work-life balance is a must whether in a brick office or a remote environment. Employers must give women the power to draw a very visible red line between work and home space.

An enabling environment, can start with support to make an office space in the home (and not working on the bed or kitchen), provision of adequate work equipment & resources, as well as respect for work vs home hours.

COVID-19 is accelerating the diversity and inclusion (D&I) conversation in the remote workspace; DI is no longer ‘a nice to have; it’s a workspace imperative’. Employers need to make a public commitment to advancing and supporting women to excel in a remote workspace.

Reskill and upskill women’s technical and soft skills, to enable transition into new ways of working in the immediate. Long-term skilling efforts have to take into account the future of work in an evolving digital age.

Many more initiatives can be rolled out; we just have to get out of the comfort zone. So, on this international women’s day, lets #ChooseToChallenge a remote workspace that doesn’t work for women; for out of challenge, comes change.

Rachael Onyango is social entrepreneur. onyangorahel@gmail.com

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