International Women's Day 2023 | How Can We Embrace Equity in the Face of Economic Uncertainty?

By Lara Zink & Natasha Stecy-Hildebrandt | March 08, 2023
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International Women’s Day is upon us, and with it, recognition of both how far we’ve come and of the work that remains. This year’s theme is “Embracing Equity” – highly relevant as many organizations continue their drive towards equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s encouraging that this March, so many organizations have adopted – and continue to adopt – measures that have the direct aim of reducing inequities and improving women’s inclusion. Much remains to be done, but increasingly workplaces recognize the non-negotiable nature of ED&I.

Yet, there are also signs of shifting tides. Economists and market commentators continue to forecast an economic downturn, and there’s concern that progress on EDI will be stalled, or worse, rolled back. We already see the erosion of flexible and remote work arrangements as employers mark the ‘end’ of the pandemic and mandate a return to the office. For instance, Canada’s largest single employer, the federal government, recently announced their hybrid work policy, requiring public servants to be in-person 2-3 days per week. The move, while framed as one of equity, prompted public servants to lament the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It isn’t coming into the office that’s the problem – it’s the lack of flexibility around it. Mandates such as these reduce the very equity employers are attempting to enact.

For women in particular, remote and flexible work are key parts of the equity conversation. They allow those most often ‘encumbered’ with caregiving to participate more fully in the workforce. We know that, more generally, women holding intersecting identities – women with disabilities, racial minority women, and members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community – desire and value remote work. If equity is about embracing the differences between people – and giving them the tools they need to succeed – then forcing them to fit into the same inflexible ‘ideal worker’ mold is inherently exclusionary.

So how exactly do we ‘embrace equity’? How can organizations center equity in their policies and practices in ways that actually reduce inequities rather than having the opposite effect – especially in light of economic uncertainty?

For one, leaders should re-examine their back-to-office mandates and consider what costs they may incur. We know that women are leaving their jobs in droves, partly because they are seeking flexibility. An equitable and inclusive approach to remote work would make it available by default, to all workers who need it, benefitting both employer (in terms of retention) and employee.

Another way organizations can embrace equity is through robust leave policies and practices. It’s been extensively written about, but as we mark IWD, it’s worth stating again: generous parental leave policies, alongside a culture of use, pave the way for men’s involvement in care and women’s inclusion at work. As long as parental leave use remains gendered, it carries long-term career implications for mothers and primary caregivers. It also stifles fathers’ and non-birth parents’ opportunities to participate in the fulfilling and purpose-driven work of care. Organizations can design and implement their leave policies through the lens of ED&I and encourage all parents to take leave.

And they can go further, by acknowledging and supporting care responsibilities across the life course. Policies like Care Days – paid days that allow employees to care for family members who are ill – not only ease the tension between women’s oft-conflicting responsibilities but continue the work of getting men more involved too. Mandates to advance equity and increase women’s inclusion should honor and facilitate the care work they do, while also enabling men’s greater involvement.

This IWD, organizations should resist economic pressures to deprioritize ED&I. In fact, they should pursue equity more stubbornly than ever, knowing that women are responding to non-inclusive workplaces by walking away. They can do this by strengthening their commitment to flexible working, recognizing and valuing the work of care, and by challenging the notion that equity is optional. It’s not. This IWD, let’s embrace that.

What is your reaction to the fact that the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will be chaired by a man?