When Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced the appointment of a 22-member team to steer the country forward in the face of the covid19 pandemic, criticism arose over the gender composition of the group – only three women were named, 13.6 per cent of the entire committee.
Calls for a balanced gender ratio were ridiculed by some, giving corroboration to the disparity as evidence of a long-existing worldwide trend – the severe underrepresentation of women in leadership, policy-making positions, and management.
Women make up a mere seven per cent of heads of state and hold only 24 per cent of positions in national parliaments worldwide. But, looking at the data on countries that have been responsibly and successfully navigating the covid19 pandemic crisis, there is a common thread woven through the cloth of efficiency and effectiveness: women leaders have been outperforming their male counterparts.
Global media has lauded the efforts of PM Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand for her empathetic communication and decisive action, praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calm appeals rooted in the scientific underpinning for the development of government strategy, admired Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s warm, authoritative response, and heralded Silveria Jacobs of Sint Maarten for her no-nonsense approach backed by firm action (“If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers.”).
So, what sets them on the path to strong leadership and decision-making in the wake of the most devastating global health emergency in recent times? PM Mia Mottley of Barbados simply says, “We care.”
In a baseline study of women in leadership across the Commonwealth, TT is listed as one of the countries to achieve 30 per cent of women in political and civil service leadership positions as of 2015. Board members in state-owned enterprises were 28 per cent female while 58 per cent of directors/heads of department in the civil service were women. In the private sector, females accounted for 27 per cent of executive leaders and 10 percent of board members.
It is imperative that this representativeness be acknowledged and secured because according to the Women Leaders’ Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and the Future convened by UN Women and the OECD in April 2020, the disproportionately negative impact of the pandemic on women and girls must be addressed. Firstly, women make up 70 per cent of frontline healthcare staff globally, but are in lower-paid, lower level positions.
Secondly, due to stay-at-home orders, cases of domestic violence against women have increased sharply. Here in TT, an alarming spike in reported cases was recorded: 203 police reports in March 2020 in comparison to 42 reports in the same month last year according to the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies.
In the global economic fallout, women make up the majority of the workforce in the informal sector without adequate social protection: unprotected by labour legislation, poor working conditions, low wages and insecure incomes.
Further, women have traditionally carried the burden of domestic responsibilities and continue to do so even when engaged in employed or own-account work, so that when asked to work from home, they are essentially covering what Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO and LeanIn.org co-founder) calls a “double double shift”.
Consider the working woman with full-time employment, a spouse, and children - housework and caregiving are magnified by the added responsibilities of pandemic precautionary measures and homeschooling children, and that’s before she even begins to address the demands of her 8-4 duties. The pressure is even greater on single mothers, women facing risks to their jobs and income, women participating in informal work, female healthcare professionals, and migrant women. Risk factors increase, for example, for migrant women who may face sexual exploitation to get income or single mothers who risk unreliable childcare to find work.
Now that PM Dr Keith Rowley has laid out a national plan for the phased reopening of business in TT, what can leaders and managers do to ensure that the covid19 pandemic does not continue to exacerbate women’s inequality at home and at work?
On a macro-level, UN Women has identified 4 key actions to include women’s needs:
1. Protect essential support systems for victims of gender-based violence
2. Support and listen to women on the frontlines of the response
3. Develop stimulus plans that build women’s economic resilience
4. Include women and women’s organisations in all decision-making
On a micro-level, managers would have shifted deadlines and revisited targets set prior to covid19 as a direct result of the national stoppage of non-essential commercial activity. In a work-from-home setting, employers would have had to realistically adjust their guidelines for performance monitoring and evaluation, and eliminate low-priority items from duties.
With businesses and offices set to reopen, a flexible arrangement for employees would ensure that women are able to manage their work hours and caregiving responsibilities in a time when children of school-age are indefinitely at home.
Given that women are disproportionately affected by the impact of the covid19 pandemic, creating policy measures that facilitate a more gender-inclusive recovery path unequivocally requires the input of the actual group to whom it relates. Going beyond the parity, there must also be substantive equality in the roles assigned within the policy-making body.
Representation matters. But, in navigating these uncertain times towards re-building and protecting our future, representativeness matters more. Women make up 50.59 per cent of the TT population and have particular needs, unique insights and experiences due to our complex and evolving social and historical fabric. It would be remiss of any government, and certainly the current government, to not diligently listen to the voices of women in TT in planning the way forward.
Women are proven leaders in their households, our communities, our institutions, and the world over. In our roadmap to recovery, women’s critical insights represent an irreplaceable contribution to decision-making that must aim to take into account the realities of all women in our society. These measures must relentlessly seek to enhance the lives of each woman. They must adopt a collective, reassuring voice that says, when it comes to the well-being and interests of women in TT, "We care."
Darcelle Doodnath is a Teacher III. She teaches Spanish at Naparima College.