Although the full economic and societal impact of Covid-19 remains to be seen, there are early indications that the pandemic is hitting women the hardest. The UN has found that women make up the majority of employees in industries and roles most affected by the pandemic, and multiple studies have found that globally, women who keep their jobs are taking on the bulk of extra labor resulting from school closures and rising caregiving needs.
A recent discussion on Female Leadership 2020 brought together a group of women executives, consultants and journalists to discuss ongoing equality issues in the financial and technology industries, who echoed these global concerns. The pandemic magnified challenges for women entrepreneurs, as many business ideas and ventures have been halted or frozen, according to Elena Haykin, Partner at Digital Horizon. Haykin said that when women-led ventures are stalled due to a lack of time or resources, providing support to female professionals can encourage them to bring their business ideas to fruition.
“I started asking women in various industries [about why] they stopped pursuing their career goals, and there were two sets of answers: one was a lack of encouragement, and [another] is that women just do not want to fight with the system,” Haykin said.
The most optimistic outcome is that the impact of Covid-19 will create an opportunity to rethink and rebuild the global approach to the work-life balance.
“It’s just important for employers to provide women with options,” said Berenice Magistretti, journalist and angel investor. “With Covid, there is a silver lining in that it opened that discussion, ‘Let’s think of the work model in a different way.’ Now [industry leaders are] thinking about what’s better for employees.”
In terms of gender equality, one constant across both finance and tech is that the pace of change has been slow. Despite several decades of activism, building awareness, and encouraging women to pursue STEM careers, an analysis by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services of 3,017 fintech startups’ data revealed earlier this month that women make up just 7% of the global fintech founder community. This reflects Magistretti’s personal experience.
“I was shocked because of how homogenous Silicon Valley is in terms of white male dominance. This is not to speak out against these men but there is an inherent problem and an inherent bias,” she said.
“I know a handful of women fighting there, tooth-and-nail, children on their head, trying to push through the error key of a male dominant category,” added Ekaterina Lukyanova, Partner at independent private equity firm Baring Vostok. At the same time, Lukyanova said being one of few women in an industry has its advantages, as she’s found it frees her to spend less time competing and more time focusing on solutions. Her observations are also supported by Deloitte’s findings, which revealed that women founders appear to be resilient and generate higher returns on investment, despite lacking equal access to the opportunities provided to their male peers.
“Part of the challenge is that these inequalities remain invisible to men and perceptible to women,” according to Tinkoff Vice President Anna Mikhina. Tinkoff, one of the world’s leading digital banks, ranks among the top companies in Russia for gender equality: in 2019, women accounted for 20% of the bank’s Board of Directors (and nearly 30% of the bank’s Management Board), a number that is more than double the average for Russian companies and nearing the levels of board gender diversity in Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Virtually every woman working to make a living has to make a choice regarding sacrificing something else to please the family, “for example, having a baby, or a happy marriage or moving up in their career. This is how, in my opinion, the glass ceiling appears in the first place,” Mikhina said.
When attempting to smash through that glass ceiling, Olga Andrienko, Head of Global Marketing at the digital marketing platform SEMrush, endorses a proactive approach.
“Whenever an opportunity came up, I just grabbed it. Nobody ever assigned me a role,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of women that were more shy or less proactive, and this is a real challenge.”
Given that the negative impacts of the pandemic have disproportionately affected women, the challenge that women will face in the post-pandemic environment will likely grow as women juggle increasing demands on their time and energy.
Too often, women silently shoulder the burden of inequality, and Mikhina argues that corporations and investors must support female employees by offering a larger toolkit to help them manage the dual responsibilities of work and family life. That can translate to assistance with childcare, transportation, or even helping women workers fulfill their families’ basic needs through food delivery programs. On the career front, this support should be balanced against transparency around opportunities, wages and professional development, all of which can contribute to the fight for equal pay, Mikhina said.