Women and power after Covid

An event this week at the Cambridge Festival covered different aspects of the treatment of women during the pandemic and why the rush to ‘return to normal’ means the window to do something to improve things is closing.

Woman In Mask Holding Sign At Shop Window Closed Due To Covid-19


The rush to return to normal in the wake of Covid means the window for policy change when it comes to supporting women at work and elsewhere is closing rapidly, a panel discussion at the Cambridge Festival heard this week. <

“Going back to normal has never been good for women,” said politics expert Professor Jennifer Piscopo from Occidental College in Los Angeles, adding that political leaders have tended to only issue temporary emergency support for things like childcare during the pandemic which they have rushed to remove in their attempts to return to ‘normal’, even though the pandemic is not over yet. 

That reflex action demonstrates the need for women to be in greater positions of authority and to have a greater voice and influence over political decision-making, she said.

Piscopo was speaking at the Women and power after Covid event at the Cambridge Festival, chaired by former MP Heidi Allen.

Listening to women’s voices

Mary Ann Sieghart, journalist and author of The Authority Gap, kicked off the event, saying that the pandemic has taught us a lot about women and power. She cited the lack of female representation in Covid press conferences. Only one female Cabinet minister led any of the briefings. President Trump’s Covid task force was made up entirely of men and only 20% of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee were women. She said that when countries are going through hard times, women are “shunted aside”, whether that is general election campaigns or the Ukraine peace talks. This is despite research showing that when women are involved in decision-making there are better outcomes for all.  Without women in the room, issues such as unpaid labour – which had a big impact during Covid, particularly for women – get ignored, for instance, she said.

All of this matters, said Sieghart, because people are less likely to accord authority to women if the experts they see are men. “The subliminal message is that men know more,” she said of the Covid years. This is despite the fact that women such as Kate Bingham, Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, played a big role in the pandemic. 

On the positive side, Sieghart said that women political leaders’ approach during Covid had shown that women were as good as men at leading and remote working during the pandemic had shown it was possible without any big impact on productivity. The challenge came if women continued to stay remote while men worked in the office and got promoted because they are more visible.

Resham Kotecha, Head of Engagement for Women2Win, a former Conservative party candidate and a Fawcett Society Trustee,  spoke of the lack of female leaders, particularly female leaders of colour, at the top of the UK’s institutions, including leading companies and the legal profession. There had been very little movement in the number of women MPs between the last two elections and only 6% of current MPs are women of colour. This is despite the fact that having more people from different backgrounds makes for better policy making and a more representative, more democratic Parliament. Female MPs make a difference for women and have been responsible for policy changes such as the Equal Pay Act and action on domestic violence, she said. 

The Fawcett Society’s research showed that part of the problem in politics is stereotypes about what the ‘ideal candidate’ might look like. Women have to work harder to be perceived as someone who can fit the model and women internalise the messages in the world around them and often don’t see themselves as role models, said Kotecha. Women are judged for having children and for not having them in a way men aren’t. Women also tend to stay in Parliament for a shorter time than men, in part because of the abuse they are exposed to. Kotecha said we need to profile strong women role models in politics and do outreach work, for instance, with schools, to get women in politics, particularly BAME women, speaking to children so they see that people like them can be politicians.

Bukola Adisa, Founder/CEO of Career Masterclass, which helps women and BAME professionals progress in the workplace, spoke about the view from corporates and her work with global organisations to help them design and develop programmes that ‘move the dial’ when it comes to being more representative at all levels. She said things had gone backwards when it comes to ethnic minority representation in the C-suite of top companies, despite the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. There had been lots of statements from companies about their commitment to diversity, she said, and efforts to use strategies that had worked for gender, where diversity efforts had previously been concentrated, on boosting ethnic minority representation. However, any progress made had tended to favour black and brown men rather than black and brown women.  Adisa also said that statements from senior leaders were important, but that it is middle management where many of the problems are.

Professor Piscopo, Director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that, although there were articles saying women leaders had done better than male ones during the pandemic it was difficult to judge because there were so few, most were concentrated in relatively wealthy democracies with strong welfare states and many were heads of island nations. Some of the tropes about women leaders that had come out of Covid also ran the risk of obscuring women’s absence from leadership both during the pandemic and in terms of the recovery from it. Women had been marginalised in the pandemic even though in most countries they had been the most likely to lose their jobs [referred to as the ‘shecession’] and to have been most affected by unpaid labour demands. Only 8% of recovery plans focus on help for women, said Piscopo. Much of the US recovery, she added, was focused on male-dominated industries. It is therefore no surprise that women are not returning to the workforce in the same number as men. Even now, she said, PPE doesn’t fit women’s bodies.

“Women’s leadership matters,” she said. “We need more of it.” She pointed to feminist recovery plans in the UK that stressed support for unpaid care and the need for care to be seen as a public good. She spoke of how local authorities in Bogota and Buenos Aires had innovated to ensure care is seen as a public good in the long term.

What needs to change

In the discussion that followed, the panellists touched on issues ranging from flexible working and the need for senior male leaders to model it if they are serious about addressing workplace discrimination to greater action on social media companies that allow abusers to be anonymous and don’t act fast enough on threats.

Mary Ann Sieghart said men needed to take more responsibility for sharing childcare and household duties. Parenting is a team effort, she said, and men should be allies. Moreover, research shows greater equality makes everyone happier. Piscopo said it was hard to give up privilege yet even typically male organisations like the IMF had developed gender-sensitive recovery plans. Politicians just chose to ignore them and not to listen or to demand more data, even though there is a huge amount of data available already. “We have to demand accountability and keep the pressure on, to stop saying please and start saying now,” she said.

Bukola Adisa added that there was also a tendency in business to “hide behind the data or a lack of data”.  She said it is not just about making a business case, but about doing what is right. She thinks younger generations are less likely to accept poor treatment and that Covid has made people rethink what they want from work.

Other issues that came up included the role of the media, with Sieghart saying that the media could do much more in terms of foregrounding female experts and voices, and the cost of living crisis which the panellists felt would disproportionately affect women, especially women of colour and people with disabilities. Piscopo expressed a fear that it could push people more towards political outsiders, such as the far right, who claim simple solutions to complex problems.

The panellists were asked what could be done to improve things: Adisa said people should focus on what they could do on a micro level and be more intentional; Kotecha emphasised the role of allies in encouraging women to stand for Parliament and addressing misogyny; Sieghart called on men to step up; and Piscopo stated that greater equality for women doesn’t mean less equality for others. “Don’t give into fear,” she stated. “The pie can grow. We all grow when society is more inclusive.”

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