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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

COVID-19: Engendering Complex, Multiple Perspectives For Women

CECILE GERWEL PROCHES, CRISTY LEASK and UPASANA SINGH

COVID-19 has brought about major disruption to the lives of citizens across the globe. Our lives have been changed in ways that we have yet to comprehend fully.

Women, under more “normal conditions”, generally experience multiple demands and challenges that affect their physical, emotional and mental health.

This year, 2020, has however, exacerbated the strain that many women are feeling.

Many have personally experienced increased home and work responsibilities, childcare and home-schooling, and possibly even job loss.

The stereotype that we can multitask may contribute to increased stress levels.

Women can in many cases be primarily responsible for taking care of elderly parents or other relatives.

They could also be the primary caregiver in the household or even be solely responsible for providing financially.

As we write this reflective piece, we grapple with the myriad and complex emotional responses to the pandemic.

The adjustment to isolation to mitigate the spread and safeguard our health lead some of us to experience separation from the loss of the daily routine and an overwhelming loss of personal space with home-school.

These emotional responses can be paradoxical as seeking to protect health, we have overlooked our under‐represented communities.

So many people have been affected by the COVID‐19 pandemic. However, there is a marked inequity in the impact for the woman as the primary caretaker for the family.

Often many women are front line workers assisting with online schooling while working which can create overwhelming multiple emotional responses.

While some job profiles had clear boundaries prior to the pandemic, with the ability to “switch off’ from the office, once you left it, the pandemic now blurred these boundaries.

Lack of office space, household responsibilities, unconducive working environments, and in many cases, no set office timings, caused many to suffer burnout in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

As time went on, and the adaptation to the “new” working arrangements settled in, “normality” may have been somewhat achieved for some.

Of course, the question could be asked as to precisely what the “new norm” is, and whether this is indeed normal and healthy, and the long-term consequences.

At the onset of the pandemic, there was a great sense of anxiety concerning the unknown aspects surrounding this virus.

Anxiety for ourselves, for our elderly parents, for our young children – all made us fearful. Working females may also have had to deal with the fear of job retention.

With economic times being difficult prior to the pandemic, many households have grown to accept the norm of double income.

The prospect of job losses post the pandemic added to the individual’s anxiety burden. With the rapid increase in fake news, it was difficult to decipher what was media hype, and what was fact.

This is a time of paradox; staying safe at home and full attention to the impact that this can have on many women and children. It is also by being aware of and, where possible, reaching out to those who we can support one another, whether in our personal or professional lives.

We encourage leaders and managers to be mindful of the added burdens that female workers may be facing during the pandemic.

We must first acknowledge that we are experiencing the pandemic in diverse ways and that the way in which we process and make sense of our reality is going to be different from individual to individual.

This is where potential conflict could arise between leaders and managers, and those who are reporting to them, should unchecked assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes and judgements, come to the fore, without us being aware of how they impact the other.

Females that are currently working may be experiencing a multitude of emotions, at different times.

These may include feeling overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, lonely, and even helpless.

Despite knowing their limitations some may take on additional work tasks to prove their worth and justify their existence in the organisation, as they continue to work from home.

 Others may be experiencing burnout, especially if they may have faced months of working from home, while having had to deal with homeschooling. The usual stress relievers that we may have turned to, are most probably unavailable due to the pandemic.

However, there may be those who are experiencing increased motivation levels and productivity, and could be benefiting from remote working.

It could also be that sleeping patterns are now significantly impacted, with some females finding that they are only able to deal with work late at night when the house is quiet. The pandemic may have brought about despondency for some females, who may have previously considered themselves high achievers, or who could have been pursuing multiple goals and objectives but may now find themselves unable to accomplish all these tasks, and perhaps having to sacrifice their dreams. Homeschooling and remote working may also affect personal relationships in the home negatively, and additional worries about personal finances may also present as a major challenge. The increased technological demands on staff working from home may also contribute to stress for some females.

Coupled with this is an uncertain future. The thought of returning to work could also be a new burden for females, especially if there is doubt concerning schooling arrangements for children.

Women, who already had to face the glass ceiling, imposter syndrome, criticisms regarding their choices about their careers and personal lives, gender inequalities and stereotypes, and even battling self (doubt, mindset, etc.), but to name a few, now face COVID-19.

Just as the medical fraternity by the day comes to realise just how different the disease presents itself in different individuals, so should we be mindful of the diverse “secondary” symptoms for females that may not yet be that evident.

We should thus be conscious as leaders and managers as to what our female employees have lost as they suddenly had to depart from their workplaces, to individually craft a space in their own homes to continue with work, under abnormal conditions. An individual, genuinely empathetic approach is required to provide staff, and especially female employees with a safe space to navigate this new complex reality, characterised by such uncertainty. Organisations can further assist by determining whether female employees need professional intervention / counselling, coaching and/or mentoring, or more support from the manager / workplace. A conducive and supportive culture is of the essence right now.

It is clear that there is a greater need to appreciate each personal story, for example, being homebound alone is very different from being homebound with children in a safe, secure space. As we navigate the future-forward there will be increased complexity, ambiguity and paradox.

The insight we have into our emotional responses and how we behave under pressure will enable increased awareness, tolerance and ability to recognise our bias.

Lastly, we laughed collectively at just how much we craved certainty when in crisis, it was this laughter that allowed a moment to feel peace in the collective.    

While the pandemic caused us to distance physically from family, friends and colleagues, technology may have helped foster connection in many more ways than was conceivably possible. Many of us have had the opportunity to ‘travel the world’, albeit virtually and connect with colleagues while fostering collaboration through virtual webinars and conferences. Though the virtual environment can be limiting in terms of engagement, many new relationships have grown, and these connections present new opportunities. On the personal front, we may also be experiencing closer ties with family and friends on the virtual platform.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic expands past the eight-month mark, we are aware that if we are to significantly transform societies and educational spaces, women and girls need to be at the forefront of social and economic recovery efforts.

So, as women in communities, we commit not to waste the chance to turn demanding experiences into significant learning and social change. We are also aware that we need a systemic response.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS|

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an academic in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.

Dr Cristy Leask began her career as a registered Counselling Psychologist in the National Health Service and then went on to join Virgin Group as a Human Resources Manager in London. Her consulting, research and teaching focus on leadership, sustainability and complexity.

Dr Upasana Singh is a senior lecturer in the Discipline of Information Systems and Technology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Westville Campus, in Durban, South Africa. She lectures on a wide-range of IT-related subjects and she has a keen interest in Educational Technologies. In 2019 she completed her Fellowship in “Teaching Advancement in Universities” (TAU), from the CHE.

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