Foundations for Gender Balance Can Be Built at Home

Nov 02, 2021 1 Min Read
gender balance, gender equality, diversity, equity & inclusion strategy, balance at work and home
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Achieving Gender Balance Requires Dedication and Commitment At Home and At Work

If we want a robust economic recovery and a fairer world, we must stem the tide of women fleeing the Covid-19 workforce.

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerned observers warned that although the physical toll of the virus on men is higher, women would suffer more social and economic devastation. Nine months and counting into the global crisis, we see that their fears were well founded when it comes to women’s careers.

In the month of September, as remote learning resumed for American schoolchildren, approximately 865,000 women dropped out of the US labour force, almost exactly four times the number of men who did the same. And the latest “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey suggests that women’s labour force participation will get worse: More than one in four women are considering either leaving the workforce or downscaling their careers.

This consideration is reasonable and best understood in the context of the recent webinar, INSEAD’s Jennifer Petriglieri explained how the lack of flexibility for parents of young children, coupled with the societal expectation that mothers should be primary caregivers, often places women in an impossible situation.

While respecting the choices of parents exiting the workforce or down-scaling careers when in these impossible situations, as organisational leaders and as members of society, we must stem the tide of women fleeing the Covid-19 workforce and work towards the return of female talent to leadership. This will enable the critically important outcomes of a robust economic recovery and a fairer world.

Building balance in the office

The status quo of gender disparities need not be maintained or exacerbated as business leaders collectively create the new normal. Highlighting the special need to stay focused on gender balance during the crisis, Achal Agarwal, Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, said, “Covid has changed several things but gender diversity continues to be a top priority.

With ‘work at home’, it has become even more critical to think about ways to support and sponsor women since there are further pressures on them because of closure of schools and other pressures at home. Those organisations which continue to work aggressively on gender diversity will emerge stronger after Covid.”

Aligned with this optimism, INSEAD alumni expressed their commitment to increasing gender balance during this disrupted time in a survey designed by Kinias and colleagues in collaboration with the IWiB Alumni Club. Sixty-nine percent of respondents indicated they were spending at least a moderate amount of time on maintaining and building gender balance. Notably, men and women respondents contributed similarly to gender balance efforts in their organisations, which is encouraging given the necessity of support from both groups of leaders.


The recent alumni survey also found that responders who saw themselves as social impact leaders, committed to bringing about a better world, contributed more to gender balance during Covid-19. Many leaders are currently focused on what can be done to leverage the disruption to build more inclusive businesses through and after the pandemic, and a webinar held last 25 Oct by the INSEAD Gender Initiative and Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM) highlighted this.

At this webinar on the policies and practices shaping organisational culture in a gender-positive manner, the speakers and many of the over 800 viewers emphasised the need to plan for a post-Covid or possibly a Covid-normal world, with a well-defined diversity, equity & inclusion strategy and firm targets. Diana Wilde, Co-founder of the Pathway20 Initiative by Aurora50, a social enterprise working towards 20 percent female presence for boards in the UAE, said, “Boards and companies that do not accelerate their diversity and inclusion initiatives are placing themselves at a disadvantage by limiting their access to talent, diversity of thought and innovativeness. To develop the most effective boards of the future, we need to consider how our actions today will impact the talent pipeline of tomorrow. Clear goals and strategic vision is required to ensure boards and executive leadership teams are adequately equipped.”

In a crisis, longer-term thinking can prove elusive, but its importance is clear. We advise leaders to build their post-pandemic strategy now. As vaccines take effect and Covid-19 gradually recedes next year, organisations should be ready to receive women who were retrenched or left the workforce in 2020. As Kinias recently wrote with Henriane Morgue d'Algue in The National (UAE), returner programmes have a high success rate when they follow established best practices. They will likely also prove effective for winning a post-Covid war for talent.

Building balance at home

For many women now, what happens at home has a significant impact on the way the pandemic is influencing career decisions. Persistent cross-societal norms of women contributing more than men at home, a surge in required domestic labour and blurred work-life boundaries are inflaming tensions between domestic and career demands. This increases the danger that families will fall back to default arrangements where women disproportionately or exclusively carry the extra domestic weight.

Before the pandemic, this resulted in the “second shift” filling many women’s non-work hours with childcare and housework responsibilities. Covid-19 has destroyed the boundary between the first and second shift, creating an even worse predicament for dual-career couples and parents, often especially working mothers. They now have to manage their own careers, lead their teams and organisations through disruption while also guiding their children through remote learning and coping with dramatically higher levels of domestic chores with everyone home and limited external support.

In worst-case scenarios, it is an unsustainable burden for any one person to carry. Thus, as the efforts of both men and women towards maintaining and developing gender balance are crucial in the workplace, the same is true at home. At this exceptional moment in history, each dual-career couple must find its own way of navigating the disruption without making potentially serious career decisions based solely on short-sighted conflict avoidance. According to Dirk Luyten, INSEAD MBA ‘89J and Managing Director of Levante Capital Management, “In these times of Covid more than ever, inclusive leaders practice their inclusive values not just in their teams at work but also in their teams at home. It means they share all the tasks including parenting and housekeeping. That way they allow their partner to continue developing their professional career in an equitable way.”

Petriglieri’s book Couples That Work, published before the pandemic, contains practical insights on how to do this. In it, she urges dual-career couples to stop focusing on extinguishing the fires in their lives and attend to fundamental issues. She recommends couples create a contract to help them through challenging periods of transition (such as a pandemic). This should cover three close-to-the-bone issues: values (What matters most to you?), boundaries (What would you never want to do?) and fears (as opposed to phobias). In a Covid-themed Harvard Business Review article, she invites couples to align during the pandemic by formulating a “crisis deal” setting out their shared priorities, intentions and needs from one another.

These deep, meaningful conversations can help couples find creative solutions for long-term fulfilment. For example, a common fear that may surface for traditional fathers is not being there for their children due to work obligations. A natural next step in the dialogue is to explore ways for both partners to find a more equitable balance of parenting and career. For women, revealing ultimate professional aspirations beyond the pandemic may prompt a larger discussion about how those aspirations can be sustained in the remaining months before the vaccine is available to us all.

With Covid-19 threatening to erase years, if not decades, of slow progress towards gender balance, dedication and commitment of thoughtful effort both at home and at work can ameliorate the potential devastation.

hey dads! watch this video and be empowered. Your partners will be appreciative of the change (yes we do hope you will consider implementing some).

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This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2021.

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Zoe is an Associate Professor and the current Area Chair of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. She is also the Academic Director of INSEAD’s Gender Initiative. Her research focuses on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), how it connects with identities, and interventions to enable leveraging everyone's talent. The intersection of gender and culture emerges in her work, which investigates both common themes across national cultures and cultural variance. Her teaching and impact work aim to enable global leaders to build gender balance, be anti-racist, and nurture inclusion and belonging. Zoe publishes in leading peer reviewed academic journals: Journal of Applied Psychology, Psychological Science, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and more. Premier media outlets, including Bloomberg Businessweek, The Case Centre, Forbes, Harvard Business Publishing, Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, INSEAD Knowledge, the New York Times, Programme Eve, and South China Morning Post, also feature her work.
Vinika Devasar Rao is Executive Director of the INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute and Gender Initiative, and Director of the Hoffman Global Institute for Business & Society, Asia. Vinika’s doctorate from the Singapore Management University is in the area of gender diversity in corporate leadership, specifically the impact of male supervisorial support on the self-regulating focus of mid-career female managers. Her other research interests are leadership diversity, millennials & inter-generational influences on the workplace, and emerging markets strategy. She is frequently invited to speak on these areas and has been quoted or published articles in leading business publications including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Economist, The Business Times, South China Morning Post and INSEAD Knowledge. After completing her MBA from IIM Bangalore, Vinika started her career with a multinational bank in India. She went on to become General Manager of an American Asian JV in the field of industrial chemicals and later the Managing Director of an Indonesian conglomerate, before making a serendipitous transition to education. As Associate Professor at the SP Jain Centre of Management, Singapore, Vinika taught business strategy to MBA and EMBA students and conducted specialised programmes for corporate clients. She has also taught at the Melbourne Institute of Technology, Deakin University, Curtin University, Lembaga Pengembangan Management, Indonesia, as well as Murdoch University and Kaplan, Singapore. She has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for specific companies as well as open enrolment events.

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