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Women’s Month, COVID-19 and returning to work – Can women have it all?



04 August 2021: For many women, working from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has given them, a better chance at managing work-life balance, but for others, it has only served to highlight the inequalities between men and women when it comes to balancing household chores and work demands. Now that there is some optimism given the vaccine roll-out, we may see more women heading back to work, but the question is, how will it affect women who value having careers and balanced home life?

“Many women want it all. They want a career, while at the same time wanting to be a good partner and mother. While we are by nature great multitaskers, when attempting to juggle so many balls in the air, eventually something has to give,” says Christelle Colman, MD of Elite Risk Acceptances, a subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure.

As the country observes Women’s Month this August, it is important to spotlight gender inequality, unequal access to child care, return to in-person work mandates, and vaccine access, which is among the many issues surrounding the return to work question for women.

Research suggests that the flexible working hours adopted whilst working from home may increase work/family conflict by increasing the domestic responsibility burden for women, especially those with young children.

“Whereas the aim of introducing flexible working hours is to improve work/life balance, it did not necessarily result in the advancement of women’s careers to senior levels. The benefit to organisations was simply the retention of women at lower management levels,” says Colman.

Now, interestingly, across the world, there are signs the pandemic could push more women to the sidelines. Millions of women in the United States alone dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic — often to take care of their kids due to a lack of other options. They could now be facing the possibility of earning less when they return. In fact, in September 2020, 863 000 women decided to quit their jobs compared to 168 000 men, as mothers across the income spectrum were forced to take on additional child care responsibilities as schools and daycares closed.  Returning to work after time off means incurring new child care costs as well as the very real prospect of a reduction in salary.  A double whammy if you will. Before the pandemic, it was estimated it would take 150 years to close the gender inequality gap between women and men, according to the World Bank. There are now signs that the Coronavirus pandemic could push more women to the side-lines, exacerbating an already alarming trend of gender inequality.

Does this mean that women will have to choose between having a career or having a work/life balance?

“No, it does not. Remember, it is important to be realistic in order to be successful,” says Colman, adding that it is possible, even amidst a post-pandemic world, to maintain a healthy work-life balance while in pursuit of breaking through the corporate gender imbalance.

Below are Colman’s top tips on how to return to work in light of the added pressure women face in balancing work and life from the kitchen table or home study.

  1. Have the discussion about work, at work

It is important for organisations to have the gender discussions now and to not shy away from doing so. It is up to women to ensure that they are not out of sight and out of mind, to embrace technology, and ensure connection at the correct level with decision-makers. If you are concerned about returning to work, speak up.

  1. The power of leveraging your network

Firstly, make time and effort to join a female networking club. Here you will find like-minded women to network with, who will also understand your unique challenges as a woman in business and they will provide support through trying times.

Secondly, up your professional social media game by expanding your network by reaching out to people you admire for virtual coffee chats and engaging in the plethora of digital industry events.  Make an effort to connect and grow given that so much of our world is now around personal connection online. Doing this may open up new opportunities for you.

  1. Get up, dress up and show up!

Being a working mother means that we have no time. If you are clear on your personal fashion style and you keep it simple, your life will be so much easier. But be careful of falling into the trap of working remotely in sweats and hoodies. Never before have appearances been more important.  Yes, you can switch the camera off, but as a professional you are losing out on the most fantastic opportunity to build your personal brand. Get up, dress up and show up.  In a world where we are disconnected, using the gift of shared screen time is a precious one you should not disregard.