Women, Work and COVID-19

By James Whitmore

Women business leaders and experts discuss how we can recover from the pandemic without making gender inequality worse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on women, but is an opportunity to rebuild the economy more fairly, according to a recent panel discussion.

Women, Work and COVID-19 was the topic at the 2020 Alumni Women's Lunch, hosted by the Faculty of Business and Economics. Moderated by Sophie Thomas, Faculty Media and Communications Manager and host of the Women Are The Business podcast, the panel featured Madeleine Grummet, co-founder of both girledworld and Future Amp, Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Jen Overbeck, Associate Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School. Due to the pandemic, the normally in-person event was hosted online.

You can watch the full event below:

Women at the forefront

By April, 325,000 women in Australia had lost jobs due to the pandemic, compared to 269,000 men. Three times as many women work in part-time roles as men, and more women work in casual jobs too, particularly retail and hospitality. This means women have been more exposed to the economic downturn driven by restrictions designed to curb the spread of the virus.

Women also dominate sectors like education and health that have been essential responders during the pandemic, and are juggling increased workloads in the home with kids at home from school. Lyons was also concerned that more women were drawing on their super, when women already retire with less funds than men.

"Women are certainly at the forefront," Lyons said. "It's a quadruple whammy on women."

Uncertain times

Madeleine Grummet has been juggling two startups and four daughters during the pandemic, but says uncertainty is part of being an entrepreneur.

"The definition of entrepreneurship is to create something under conditions of extreme uncertainty. As an entrepreneur, you're always in a climate of volatility," she said.

She was concerned that the drop in venture capital available to startup founders was particularly hurting women - who make up only 3% of funded founders worldwide, a proportion that has fallen during the pandemic.

Her advice to entrepreneurs through the pandemic is, "Keep going!"

"In times of great constraint we are actually capable of remarkable shifts".

Getting the balance right

Jen Overbeck emphasised the importance of boundaries between work and home life.

"This has been the worst possible experiment in work from home," she said.

Flexible work was something for organisations to aspire to - it boosts morale and productivity. But the pandemic has thrown all sorts of complications into the mix, Overbeck said, such as caring for children.

But she noted organisations have been surprised at the agility of their workforce. Grummet said working from home has made things easier, including her ability to share and negotiate parenting with her partner.

Diversity matters

All three panellists emphasised the importance of diversity in the workplace. Despite fears that the pandemic might cause managers to rethink diversity programs, Lyons said some businesses were actually putting more resources into diversity.

"The smart employers are realising that diversity and inclusion is absolutely the way to go and build their business back up really quickly," she said. "Gender-balanced teams, diverse teams - they will help you build better, stronger more sustainable business."

Overbeck said good managers were essential.

"Managers who are good at managing diversity get much more benefit from a diverse team than they do from a non-diverse team," she said.

Female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern have been praised for their response to the pandemic. Overbeck said that while it doesn't seem that female leadership makes a difference to a country's ability to curb the virus, collaborative leaders such as Ardern are more representative of leadership styles traditionally seen as feminine.

Snap back?

Lyons cautioned against a "snap-back" to the way things were before the pandemic. Instead, we need to "leap forward", and do better on gender equality.

"We've proven that we can create structural change overnight if we have to, so let's take those learnings forward and make sure that we change the way we think, we learn, and we engage," Overbeck said.

Grummet said to get through the pandemic women could start by setting some boundaries.

"It's really important to create rituals and routines around the way you structure your work," she said.

Lyons said she has been putting on makeup while working from home to make her feel like she was in work mode, and emphasised gathering ideas from others.

"Talk to people, listen, try different things, and tweak them so that they suit yourself," she said.

The women's lunch was hosted by the Faculty's Alumni Relations team and the Women Are The Business podcast. To hear more from Libby Lyons and Jen Overbeck, and other alumni and Faculty researchers, check out the podcast.