Is Coronavirus the Shift Working Women Need?

This morning, after overhearing some frivolous conversation between my sisters and I over breakfast, my father said he was “sorry for making us girls,” because it “made life harder.” My family is predominantly women, and no one is a greater champion for us than our father, so the joke was well received. We laughed–it was hilarious.

Hilarious, except that for each of us a big part of growing up has meant realizing maybe that apology, in some contexts, is warranted.

***

My sister recently sent me an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In it, former State Department Policy Director Anne Marie Slaughter acknowledged that she found the tradeoff between her professional and family life to be both inherent and untenable:

“….working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, 2012

After sharing her own experience, Ms. Slaughter proceeded to outline the various sociological and biological forces at play preventing women from enjoying the same work-family balance as their male counterparts.

The article was written in 2012. My immediate thought was; ‘not much has changed.’

***

This kneejerk reaction was perhaps borne of my own, short stint in the working world. McKinsey’s most recent report tells us that the number of women rising to manager level within their organizations has stagnated. As a woman early in her career, eyeing management as the next step and already unsure of how I could juggle future motherhood with expected work demands, what could be more demoralizing than seeing the numbers against me?

***

The thing is, I was wrong. Something has changed. Something has arrived and turned the world upside-down in a mere matter of months.

COVID-19 has forced flexible, work-from-home policies on most employees. And while I understand this has been no walk in the park for working parents, I cannot help but wonder if Coronavirus is the big break that we, the working women who have or want families, needed.

***

Many calls to action in support of working mothers, including Ms. Slaughter’s, hinge on flexible work structure that allow parents to take calls from home, to leave work early and log back on later, to not be penalized for taking PTO to attend a dance recital rather than a doctor’s appointment. The current pandemic has made policies like these a reality for everyone.

We are in the midst of a trial-by-fire for remote, flexible work; and women aren’t the only beneficiaries. Between 2005 and 2017, remote work in the US grew 159%, and 85% of companies reported greater efficiency and improved talent retention because of it. Not to mention the increases in morale and the reduction in operating costs that are often byproducts of remote work policies.

***

Eventually COVID-19 will run its course, and the world will return to a new type of normal. In creating this new normal, we have an unprecedented opportunity in the fight for workforce equality. Fostering remote culture even after social distancing restrictions are lifted may allow women to actually “have it all.” Let’s not miss this chance.

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