Choose to Challenge

Are we heading towards a “new normal”?

While the country has been successfully run by the most powerful woman in the world for almost sixteen years, Germany has never been a frontrunner when it comes to gender equity in the workplace. How has the COVID pandemic affected previous efforts to achieve better gender balance at work and at home?

The coronavirus pandemic has led to great disruption to the workplace for men and women – but not to the same extent. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 52 percent of women in Germany said their lives had changed, while only 42 percent of men said they felt the same. In the course of these changes, it has also laid bare structural discrimination and inequities, from the gendered division of labor within the home to disparities in leadership and career options.

At the same time, we are observing that the current crisis is accelerating changes that are leading to rethinking gender roles and equity in the workplace.

New questions arise:

  • What will the post-pandemic workplace look like?
  • Will it return to the “old normal” or even set us back to patterns and roles that we have long been fighting to overcome?
  • Or are we going to see a “new normal” that lays the ground for workplaces that level the playing field for more diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Back to the “old normal”?

Research as well as public debate show conflicting results: While some findings indicate a re-traditionalization of the gender relationship—with primarily women downgrading their ambitions and careers in order to take care of their families during the pandemic—others point out that the proportion of men who are more involved in family work and childcare has also risen significantly.

A recent online survey from the Institute of Economics and Social Research (WSI) indicates that at least some of the gender relations can be assumed to have re-traditionalized: While 24 percent of women in Germany reduced their working hours during the 2020 springtime lockdown, only 16 percent of men did the same. But the numbers are also worth a second glance. According to a survey by the Institute for Employment Research of the Federal Employment Agency (IAB), women worked an average of 32.6 hours per week before the pandemic, while men reported 39.7 hours. However, the average working hours fell for both sexes: women reported an average of 30.9 hours worked per week in June 2020 (5.2 percent less), men 36.3 (8.5 percent less). While women are still working fewer hours, men reduced their work at a higher percentage than women.

What does that mean for the actual labor distribution at home?  Before the COVID outbreak, the brunt of unpaid work at home fell on women. According to a 2019 study by Eurostat and Destatis, 72 percent of women reported doing household chores every day, but only 29 percent of men did the same. This burden obviously had increased during the pandemic. Of couples who said they normally split housework and childcare equally, only 62 percent reported still doing so during the crisis.

Work and life are merging

Since a lot of people were forced to merge work and home, we have been peeking inside a lot of houses. Seeing somebody’s children, partners, pets, and roommates has become part of our everyday work. While there is good reason to question the missing boundaries between professional and private lives, it has also shown all of us as humans in a way we had not seen each other before. In many cases, this has led to new levels of mutual understanding.

Going forward, smart leaders and companies must ensure that they provide workplaces that allow their employees to bring their whole selves to work. The key to success during the crisis has proven to be providing flexibility in schedule, location, and outcomes, and this should stay with us after the virus. In many industries, work can be done effectively across distance, with technology allowing for connection, collaboration, and innovation. Relatedly, virtual events, trainings, and meetings have become popular options, making them more accessible to people who before may have been unable to spend extensive time away from home.

However, flexible and remote work will not solve gender inequity on its own—neither in Germany nor anywhere else. Organizations must be mindful that those “out of sight” are not “out of mind” but are regarded as equally valuable, capable, and committed as those returning to the office.

Soft skills are in high demand

According to the World Economic Forum “Future of Work” report, by 2025, humans and machines will split work-related tasks 50-50, while 97 million new jobs will emerge in AI, the green economy, and care economy. As organizations transform, skills need transforming too. This so-called “Skills Revolution” (Manpower) together with the current crisis is accelerating the demand for both technical and human skills.

The massive shift to remote work with often widespread teams means that even more efforts are necessary in order to strengthen collaboration, teamwork, and spirit. Therefore, soft skills are in high demand—skills, that a lot of women bring to the table naturally, and that had often been underestimated in the past. Finally, communications, time management, prioritization, adaptability, initiative-taking, and empathy, are more highly valued and sought after than ever before. While new skills always need a lot of effort to be adopted, employers are currently experiencing that it is even harder to teach missing soft skills than technical skills.

On to the “new normal” – What is the path forward?

Even though it is hard to imagine right now, there will be a time after COVID. By then, we will find ourselves fast-forwarded in the future of work without having to deal with everyday challenges caused by the current crisis.

The good news is: We are moving towards a future that we can shape and create along the way. We are at a crossroads where we—men and women alike—need to make important choices on how we move forward. Are we designing a more equitable life for everyone, or do we go back to the old normal that didn’t work that well for many of us?

Personally, I believe that there are great opportunities for all of us ahead. We need to be intentional in many ways, at home and at work. Many men and fathers that I have spoken to—at companies that I work with as well as in the schoolyard or at kindergarten drop-off—have been able to discover a new work-life-experience that they had not voluntarily chosen or even had been able to imagine a year ago. Spending more time at home than in the office, preparing meals instead of eating out, giving baths and taking the kids to bed instead of travelling and having drinks with colleagues after work have not only revealed how much unpaid and unvalued work had been done by their spouses. It has also made clear that there are different ways of appreciation, far away from money and status but not less satisfactory and fulfilling. If we are able to shift expectations and live up to these promises, we can clearly envision a future in which men and women have more equal opportunities at work and in their private lives.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.