Commentators around the world have noted that COVID-driven flexible working will be beneficial in achieving gender equality. However, evidence from Australia – ahead of the curve in its recovery – suggests there may be unintended consequences of these changes, particularly when it comes to gender inequity in the workplace.
Pre-COVID-19 interventions to reduce gender inequality in the workplace
In recent decades, Australian businesses and government have made significant progress towards gender equality in the workplace. Positive change is encouraging; however, true equality is yet to be achieved. Australia dropped from a baseline ranking of 15th in the world on the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), to 44th in 2020.
To directly address systemic workplace inequality and to drive positive change, the Australian government introduced a range of reporting requirements and strategic frameworks to provide a roadmap for positive change. In 2018, the Australian government committed to reduce the female-male workforce participation gap by 25% by 2025 to align with G20 workforce participation targets.
But what happens when a global pandemic disrupts strategy implementation – and what can we learn from a market which is in the process of returning to ‘normality’?
Australia is in a different position to many countries around the world, moving from disaster management, to recovery and rebuild. As a result, answering this question – and ensuring the insight is integrated into strategy and investment plans as we move through 2021 and beyond, is critical for the government sector. This is also critical for Australian society as a whole, given the role of the public sector in driving economic recovery.
Within this context, recent consultations with decision maker forums responsible for elements of gender equity in the workplace have included a focus on COVID-19 recovery processes and impacts. This work, and its resulting insight, potentially provide some lead indicators and considerations for other markets around the world.
Early evidence from Kantar Public’s work in Australia indicates that the impact of COVID-19 on workplace equity is nuanced and will not be finite in nature. Leaders and those tasked with driving gender equality initiatives, believe that changes to the internal operating environment (such as more flexible working hours or better facilitated home/remote working), introduced as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and Health Department protocols – will drive positive change in some areas.
However, consultations have also shown that dormant or currently unrealised negative consequences are hidden behind these positive changes and represent a risk to shift disadvantage and inequality to other aspects of an individual’s work and home life.
Underpinning many of these disadvantages is the potential to conflate the concept of ‘flexible work’ with ‘gender equality’. It is well known that flexible working (expressed both as working from home and working flexible hours) is increasingly being recognised as a key driver for positive change.