The impact of COVID-19 on women: finding ways to be more flexible and inclusive

Hannah Annobil-Acquah, Head of Retail Banking at First National Bank Ghana

It’s International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021. In recognition of the celebration of International Women’s Day this week, Hannah Annobil-Acquah – Head of Retail Banking at First National Bank Ghana, shares her thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on women; and how we are learning and evolving as a result.

The McKinsey Women in Work 2020 Report indicated that 1 in 4 American women consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. As the report states – the ‘double-shift’ that women have already been working has become even more intense.

In South Africa, the Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey – reported that of the 3 million job losses reported in 2020, 2 million were those of women. For those fortunate enough to have jobs, our days are often filled with technology, ensuring the continuation of children’s education or logistical changes, occupying children while in meetings or presenting, doing general household chores and working late to catch up on work.

Global leaders like Sheryl Sandberg have raised their concerns, noting that impacts of the pandemic are a threat to the progress women have made in the workplace over the past decade. This is because of the delicate balancing act and load that so many of us are juggling.

“I see it as an opportunity to challenge our thinking and evolve our approach in business and society when it comes to our new reality – to fully support this evolution, our focus needs to rest on diversity, inclusion and constant upskilling within the workplace,” Hannah stated.

According to Hannah, an understanding by employers around the continued and exaggerated needs for flexibility goes a long way; allowing women and parents the freedom to serve both their personal and business commitments.

“Leaders can support staff needing to avail of leave and book out ‘meeting-free’ times in their staff’s diaries – this gives people the space to gather their thoughts and manage their load. We are not working 9-5 anymore, and so the workday and attitude of society can evolve positively to accommodate and be flexible toward the rest of our lives. Pervasive feedback indicates that people value the freedom work from home allows, as long as it is appropriately managed, and as long as trust and commitment is upheld – this is encouraging.”

Inclusivity means an acceptance that people are working from their home environments, and so an expectation around disturbances for both men and women alike – such as children’s voices in the background – allows people to feel more comfortable rather than feeling like they need to be put ‘on mute’. Setting up time for casual, judgement-free interactions wherein employees are called upon to share their perspectives and opinions have become critically important for people to remain connected and included.

She further explained that inclusivity from a business perspective should however be viewed with an even broader lens. Male and female leaders should continue to give exposure and ‘open the door’ to opportunities for women.

When operating in such a virtual world of work, this is a deliberate effort of stepping aside to allow women to lead a project, pitch, take their rightful seat at the boardroom table and drive initiatives. Succession plans can play a valuable role in this if they are deliberate, fair, and supported by mentors and sponsors.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on business and political leaders, and the value that people place on empathy, communication, collaboration, teamwork, relationships and the ability to motivate – I am hopeful that this will be sustained well beyond the pandemic. These are all categories that many women excel in – and given the opportunity to tap into these and use them to better society and business, could create even more of a platform for women to thrive in the workforce and beyond.

It takes a village to juggle multiple work and personal life responsibilities, and this village is comprised of both men and women, family members, friends, business colleagues, and even the local grocery delivery service. If we as leaders, colleagues, friends and family work together to accept and appreciate everyone’s varying circumstances and challenges, to create opportunities, and importantly, to share the physical and mental load, we can emerge from this pandemic and set ourselves up for a future that is more human and more connected than ever.

To the mom assisting customers on the phone while her children are playing next to her; to the daughter taking care of her parents; to the manager running a meeting and worrying about what’s for dinner; to the friend checking in regularly with those who need her; to the leader who gives care and support to her team – we see you, value you and thank you for helping us all learn how to be better. Happy International Women’s month.

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