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Why gender equality should be at the top of your pandemic recovery list

With businesses, governments, and nonprofits trying to stay afloat, why focus on gender equality now?

This article was first published in Apolitical.

In short, if not now; when? Several months into the pandemic, we’re experiencing how Covid-19 has upended almost all aspects of life. It’s exposed the harsh realities of gender, race and economic inequality and revealed pervasive systems of neglect. You know what else it’s done? It’s put recent gender equality gains at risk, for example, women’s participation in the labour market. These gains haven’t only benefited women, but also their families, the business they buy from, and the government-funded programs their taxes support.

And yet, if organizations want to go beyond just staying afloat, this pandemic also presents a humanistic and business imperative to emerge as more inclusive, solutions-oriented and equitable.

Now the question becomes, if not you; then who?


Covid-19 affects all of us, but it doesn’t affect us equally. Although no one is immune, it will never be the “great equalizer” because we weren’t equal before. Women are responsible for 75% of all unpaid household and caretaking work, and in most families, it’s likely women who have added “teacher” and “scheduler” and a lot more cooking and planning to their responsibilities.


Data indicate that the mortality rates from Covid-19 may be higher for men, something that must be addressed, while also urgently stepping up efforts to track, monitor, and evaluate the health impact on women and by race and ethnicity. At the moment, the minimal disaggregated data we have about the virus show we are mortally failing African-Americans. If historical data is an indicator, we no doubt will see disproportionate high mortality rates for Black women.

Recent increases in domestic violence, disruption to sexual and reproductive health services, education, and community programs, and unemployment claims in industries where women make up the majority also show that the pandemic will have devastating long-term social and economic consequences for all women and girls.

As organizations explore the way forward, it will be critical to consider the pandemic’s different impact on all women and men, girls and boys, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, including the respective multi-racial and multi-ethnic groups, within the organization, supply chain, and the communities where they operate to understand why focusing on gender equality can help all of us.

1. We are linked

The first clue to understanding the relevance of gender equality comes through realizing that our health and wealth is intrinsically linked. As managers, consumers, business owners, raw material producers (to name just a few), women play an essential role for communities, organizations and local and global value chains.

When women have access to the health services and resources they need, not only are they healthier, they are also more productive. This isn’t rocket science, but sometimes it appears that way as gender equality continues to be perceived as “nice to have” instead of the organizational and business imperative it is.

2. “It will not be effective unless it is also equitable”

This is what renowned philanthropist Melinda Gates said about the world’s response measures to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the same is true for most issues and most organizations that aim to increase their impact or return on investment. In global and local value chains, for example, providing women raw material producers equal access as their male counterparts to resources and equipment means increased productivity and goods. Similarly, streamlining procurement processes and pursuing intentional outreach means a diversified supplier pool where organizations can tap the best talent.

3. It matters to most situations, even when it may not make sense

Gender equality can be a powerful organizational driver not just to increase effectiveness but also to save money. Although countries are starting to reopen their economies, some restrictions are likely to remain in place, requiring organizations to continue to adapt and think new. 


Although gender equality is often perceived as a “women’s issue” it matters in most situations, even when it may not make immediate sense, and any organization looking to unfold new opportunities at this time should consider exploring how it applies in its entirety and to all aspects of the organization. In 2011, cities in Sweden did just that as they started to look at snow clearing services through an intersectional gender lens (i.e., looking at factors beyond gender, such as age, race/ethnicity, and disability)ƒ, and found that women's and men's different travel patterns affected how they benefited from the services. As governments decided to shift their priorities to clean pedestrian areas first, instead of big roads, they saw the number of accidents among pedestrians (a majority of which are women) go down. And as they declined, cities ended up spending less on healthcare bills (which had been three times higher than the cost of road maintenance), and instead gained more productivity hours as people could get to work, or wherever they had to be.

4. Do More Not Less

Lastly, the benefits of gender equality and diverse and inclusive workforces are clear. The research findings haven’t changed because of the pandemic. Diverse, gender-balanced, and inclusive teams outperform their industry peers because they are better at customer and client orientation, product and process innovation, and decision-making. New research shows S&P 500 companies that prioritized diversity and inclusion grew 14.4% during the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009.


In a survey by PwC of 10,000 respondents, 86% of women millennials said employer policy on diversity and workforce inclusion was important. Millennials may go through their second “once-in-a-lifetime” depression and be discouraged by the future economic outlook, but that doesn’t mean their values have changed. Or, that they will expect less of organizations.

Where to start?

Making gender equality an integral part of the organization’s DNA is about measuring, recognizing, and responding to different needs, and improving, or establishing the necessary processes to do so. It’s easy to say “now is not the time,” but that would mean disregarding all the benefits gender equality brings at a moment when they are most needed. What are some ways to get started? 

  • Learning from the past: After Gujarat (one of the largest states in India by area), was hit by an earthquake in 2001, the houses that were rebuilt had no kitchen. The same thing happened in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2004. In 2005, as public and private stakeholders sat off to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina had struck, African American women, disproportionately affected by the event, had a hard time getting their voices heard. (Read more in Caroline Criado-Perez's phenomenal book Invisible Women: Data bias in a world designed for men). Learning from the past may seem simple, but often it requires not just behavior and systems changes, but also that we have uncomfortable discussions about “lessons learned” in ways not undertaken in the past. Most importantly, as these scenarios show, we must include those who were not at the table the last time solutions were developed.

  • Ask the right questions: What does gender equality mean to your organization today, and what does it mean tomorrow? How is gender equality linked to your organizational and business goals? What do these goals mean in terms of strengthened gender equality? In what ways is gender equality relevant to your departments and their separate goals? What decisions are currently informed by data disaggregated by gender? What are the different needs of the clients, customers, contractors, managers, employees, and community members you work with?

  • From value statement to standard operating procedure: To do more is to go from value statement to standard operating procedure. In Canada, all Cabinet proposals submitted at the federal level must include a gender-based analysis. But don’t throw out all your strategies or create a new separate team. Ask questions and clarify needs and opportunities within your current frameworks. And invest in your teams — have them identify synergies and lead the way.


The U.S. economy has lost all jobs created since the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, with women, in particular women of color, continuing to lose a disproportionate number, as women-dominated industries, such hospitality and retail, are taking the hardest hits. 


Organizations are likely to have to report on their response to the pandemic and its consequences. Who made gender equality a priority? Who scaled up their gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and CSR efforts? Which leaders went for pay cuts instead of staff layoffs? To consider gender equality for the way ahead is not to consider a “women’s issue, HR, or CSR,” it’s about the resilience and sustainability of organizations and the future of our economy. Now.


— Caroline Torén and Gwendolyn W. Young

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Don’t expect everyone to be a gender equality expert

“I had never thought of public transportation as a gender equality issue before I moved to Los Angeles”

This article was first published in Apolitical.

I had never thought of public transportation as a gender equality issue before I moved to Los Angeles. I have commuted by bus and metro all my life — through Stockholm, London, and Brussels — often killing time with a book or a podcast. I didn’t pay much attention to the different needs of other riders, or the design that enabled them to travel. Despite spending a lot of my professional time working on gender equality — for example at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, where I was championing the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, — I had never had a conversation about the link between public transportation and gender equality.

This was also the case when I moved to L.A., where I continued to use public transit but often found it more challenging getting to work or seeing friends and family on the other side of town. But then, in my second year in the city, while I was working for the L.A. City Commission on the Status of Women, I had the opportunity to join the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority NextGen Bus Study Working Group. This group is comprised of 60+ community members helping to improve L.A. Metro’s bus system — 165 bus routes and 7 million service hours, serving a County of ten million people (equal to the size of my native Sweden’s entire population).

​It was only after I joined this network and after I researched the topic on my own, that I became fully aware of women’s different mobility patterns and mobility needs, based on age, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability, and other essential factors. Soon, I realized that this was an issue that needs more advocates.

Not all people are gender equality experts

Globally, data on women is limited, and so is the progress towards gender equality. We

continue to read about persistent pay gaps, violence against women, the lack of women in management positions or elected office, and women’s lack of access to venture capital. The glacial pace of change shows that we have yet to find a narrative that resonates with a larger population, as the marriage equality movement so successfully did, and which recognizes, as Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the influential White Ribbon Campaign, writesthat the “gender equality revolution is also a revolution for men.”

But to be effective, we also need to build everyone’s skills to assess and respond to issues in a gender-responsive way. This is called gender mainstreaming: the process of assessing the implications for women and men, girls and boys, and members of the LGBTQ+ community of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels.

Around the world, organizations have committed to advancing gender equality and implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women (CEDAW). To accelerate this process, we must invest more in the employees who are expected to deliver on CEDAW’s principles. When policy analysts, transportation managers, service providers, city planners, communication officers, building inspectors, project managers, architects, data scientists, police officers, bus drivers, and many more, know why and how

gender equality matters to their field of work, we can achieve structural change.

As we continue efforts to increase women’s representation across all levels and sectors, let’s build and improve our collective skills to apply a gender lens to the way we design, implement, and evaluate policies, programs, and services. And let’s do it in a compelling way. Scrap theories and focus on examples that everyone can relate to; personally, professionally, and at the community level. Let’s talk about gender-blind design that we experience every day and

the benefits of gender equality that we don’t always think about - couples that share unpaid household work equally have more sex. Who knew? Let’s not expect colleagues to be gender equality experts, but instead build their capacity to become one.

The price women pay for transport

Just like me, many of my colleagues and friends had never looked at public transportation through an intersectional gender lens. But public transit plays a fundamental role in shaping access to education, jobs, healthcare, childcare, and other amenities. For many women and girls, lack of safe, affordable, accessible, and frequent transit services have an isolating effect. It increases the time they spend in transit, and on domestic tasks and caregiving responsibilities, while limiting their professional opportunities, and time to connect with friends and family. And women of color are taking the biggest toll.

Women, including teens, are responsible for 75% of the world's unpaid household and care work, and this affects how they travel. While men tend to drive to work and back, women take public transportation multiple times per day, at peak and off-peak hours. Not only to work, but to drop off children at school, take care of elder relatives, buy groceries, and more. Women

and girls also experience more harassment and physical abuse. In New York City, women’s fear for their safety and caregiving responsibilities lead to women paying a pink transit tax as they opt for ride-sharing services, instead of public transit, to get home safely. But this option is not

available to everyone.


Besides gender roles, basic means, employment status, driving license, and cultural values are other factors affecting one’s mobility and safety. Women and girls experiencing homelessness often seek refuge on the metro, and they have their own set of needs that must be addressed in the design of services and allocation of resources. What’s more, bus and train stations comprise some of the most common recruitment spots for human trafficking - a crime affecting an estimated 40.3 million people globally, 75% of which are women and girls.

In the NextGen Bus Study Working Group, it is becoming a standard to address issues from an intersectional gender lens. A few months into the initiative, L.A. Metro and its Women & Girls Governing Council decided to conduct a study on how women travel, and they are now developing a Gender Action Plan that will recommend policy, design and service upgrades that can improve women’s travel experiences. Good progress is being made, and if we continue to see investments in capacity-building, we may soon have a 10,000 strong Metro workforce that knows why public transportation is a gender equality issue, and gender-responsive assessments and services will become the new normal. 

— Caroline Torén

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