Victoria MacKirdy Chief Executive Officer at the City of Victor Harbor, and a member of the South Australian Chiefs for Gender Equity group run through the SA Equal Opportunity Commission, shares her perspective on how the global COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with an opportunity for lasting change at work and at home.
Disrupting preconceived ideas of gender roles
As the federal government announces a gradual lifting of COVID restrictions it is important to remember not just the challenges we have faced together, but also the silver linings that sudden change has brought – and how these could bode well for the future of work in the longer term as we look at getting back to ‘normal’. We just need to allow the new world to emerge with some of the benefits COVID has delivered in terms of agility and new perspectives.
The other day I noticed two youngish men looking like they were out getting some exercise. Nothing strange there. But this time one of them was carrying a young baby in sling. As I passed by, I heard one ask the other how old his baby was now and if she had smiled yet. It made me realise just how far we have come in a matter of months in terms of gender equality. After years of pushing for change, this pandemic could finally have helped to smash preconceived ideas of gender roles.
Sharing the care helps progress
With so many men and women now working from home and working flex, traditional gender stereo types no longer apply. Sharing the primary care of children has become the new normal out of necessity. That’s not to say it is an easy juggle — balancing paid and unpaid work is difficult, but at least fathers are now more visible on weekdays doing the everyday things we used to associate with women– buying a pre-schooler a milkshake, taking the kids for a bike ride, and walking the block with a sleeping infant.
Our perceptions of women and their roles is changing too. Many of the leaders we see on TV guiding us through this crisis are women. And they are not hiding the fact they are parents. The NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern even showed up recently with nappy cream on her blazer AND she posted about it. Suddenly the very real fact that so many of us are juggling families and work is out of closet. The spotlight is on how much of this unseen work is usually done without comment.
In terms of gender equity, turning things around by allowing everyone to work from home has helped men embrace fatherhood. And seeing more men actively caring for children helps women by shifting the ingrained biases that stubbornly remain in society and in many workplaces.
Getting rid of gender bias is a win win
Unconscious gender bias is an insidious thing – in fact, many like to dispute that it even exists at all. But now that we have all been taking care of business and domestic chores from our dining room tables, the inequity has become even more evident.
Research pre-COVID showed the invisible lines drawn between men and women at home and in the workplace. This is a picture those of us at SA Chiefs for Gender Equity would like to change and we hope now people are listening.
The latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) research shows women have the highest levels of work-family conflict levels. The research found women disproportionately do the lion’s share of housework and caring for children, even when both parents work full-time in comparable occupations. And when men want to change their work patterns to help at home, research by management consultancy Bain and Co found they are twice as likely to be knocked back on flexible work requests when compared to women.
Unhelpful stereotypes encourage the belief that women have the main caring responsibilities and men are more capable at work and should be the dominant breadwinners. This is of course part of the reason why men still occupy most board seats and senior leadership roles in Australia. In fact,
even in female-dominated professions like teaching, communications, or healthcare it is still more statistically likely that a man will head up these organisations and earn more because they can ride the ‘glass elevator’ to the highest levels of management more easily.
Finland – why flex work and fatherhood work
But with the COVID crisis we have a situation that gives us a chance to really address some of these issues because flexible is suddenly on offer.
Men finally have had a chance to do more with their children and to provide support with domestic chores. Research shows many men really want this opportunity. Women should support them in their fight to get it and help to break the pattern of discrimination. But workplaces will also need to be prepared to make some serious changes to open agile working for everyone, not just mothers.
We know from studies in other countries like Finland that if we have real structural change in both our legislation and in workplaces, we are likely to see fewer divisions of labour when it comes to raising children, and that means more opportunities for women in their own careers.
Finland has some of the most equitable parental leave policies in Europe. They are rated in the top of five in The Economist magazine’s Glass Ceiling Index (2018) for gender equity in terms of working conditions. Finnish mothers and fathers both get six months’ paid leave, and there is no reference to ‘maternity’ or ‘paternity’ leave – it’s simply ‘parental leave’. Most Finish men are expected to take their full leave entitlement too. Nobody bats an eyelid to see men out with prams having coffees with a friend, or at playgroups.
In addition, Finland has just brought in a new Working Hours Act. The reforms aim to provide more autonomy to workers with employees (within limits) allowed to decide their own ‘flexitime’ around when they come to the workplace, when they leave, and even where they work from.
The results? Finland has some of the highest levels of productivity and female workplace participation in Europe, and that leads to positive results across the board. For example, around 40 per cent of all politicians in Finland are female, more than 40 per of their ambassadors are women, and around one third of all entrepreneurs are female. But this didn’t just happen – gender equity for both men and women has been a priority for the Finnish government for a long time. They invested in it.
Seize the opportunity for change now
So why don’t we take this opportunity we have been given to follow Finland and make this a time to really change workplaces for the better by accepting that flexible work is here to stay? That way parents won’t have to panic when school holidays approach, men know they can ask for and expect to get requests for part time work or flex arrangements granted without ridicule, and women can stay on track in their careers because they know they can access support and are not carrying the burden alone.
As we look toward getting back into our city offices, we need to remember that social norms are changing. There is now going to be a bigger push toward better equality. Employers need to help working families to be able to juggle their roles equally as sharing the care is good for both our society and the economy.
Celebrating fatherhood and encouraging more of a role for men in the domestic sphere will begin to close the gender gap for women and will bring companies their best employees and a reputation as a workplace of choice.
Let’s hope when we open our doors again workplaces will do so with a bold new approach and a mission to improve productivity with greater flexibility, autonomy, and new opportunities for everyone.
About Victoria MacKirdy
Victoria MacKirdy is the Chief Executive Officer at the City of Victor Harbor in South Australia. As well as managing a busy career, she is also mother to five children – sharing the care with her husband who runs a busy physio practice. Victoria is passionate about supporting flexible work policies in the public and private sector.
She is an active member of the South Australian Chiefs for Gender Equity group, run through the SA Equal Opportunity Commission.
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