Not long after the news of Covid-19 broke around the world, it became clear that it would be a health crisis of pandemic proportions. But it also became apparent early on that there was much more at risk than health.
While men were more likely to die from the virus by the numbers, women have disproportionately experienced the social and economic effects of the pandemic.
Fragile systems and safety nets cracked almost instantly.
Women in labor were turned away from hospitals full of Covid patients. Reproductive care was too often put on hold. Incidences of domestic violence rose as they often do in times of crisis. Jobs were lost, but especially in sectors dominated by women, while other job categories in which women also dominated — nurses, caregivers — put them directly in harm’s way. Family economies were pinched, leaving women to figure out how to make up the gap. And as schools shut down, many parents — but mostly women — had to leave the workplace altogether to care for children stuck at home.
But as Covid-19 has made inequities in the system all too apparent, it also has opened up opportunities — to rebuild workplaces, to reframe leadership, and to take new approaches to climate change, health care and other global issues.
As we look to the end of 2020 and the health and social challenges it has wrought, we asked
female leaders in crucial disciplines to talk about the role women can have in determining what the world looks like after the pandemic.
Here are their responses, which have been edited and condensed. FRANCESCA DONNER
Showing Girls How to Grow Into Innovators
Mariya Gabriel is a Bulgarian politician who serves as the European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.
What do you see in the post-pandemic world in terms of education for girls and women?
If we want to emerge stronger, we have to turn to our many talented girls and women to tackle the challenges we face today.
What does that mean?
For example, too few innovators and entrepreneurs are women. The numbers are quite alarming. Only 16 percent of start-ups in Europe have women as founders or co-founders. We need more women to help us in the recovery.
How can education help?
In Europe, of 1,000 women university graduates, only 24 go on to information and communication related fields and only six are making careers of it. At the same time, girls at the age of 10 or 12 — more than 90 percent are interested in information and technology. That means something happened between primary and secondary school and university.
What can be done to keep girls interested?
We need more role models, mentoring, training programs in order to show to our young girls that technology is not just guys in a dark room.
What impact, if any, do you think the move to remote learning during the pandemic had?
I think actually more girls will be more confident in their digital competencies and skills and their desire to have a career in the field of science and technology. We should maintain this self-confidence to encourage them to pursue a career in this — and to go to university and to study something new like artificial intelligence.
More women are needed to work in artificial intelligence, right?
It’s huge — because A.I. is working with data, and it’s possible to reproduce bias and discrimination — we definitely need more girls.
What are you doing in this area?
There’s the Digital Education Action Plan. We are proposing, with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, to have training programs for 40,000 people — and at least 40 percent women and girls — in technology and artificial intelligence in particular.
As I understand it, the plan’s goal is to develop a “high-performing digital education ecosystem” in Europe, reflecting lessons learned during the pandemic, as well as enhancing digital skills and competencies. What ages will these training programs serve, and when will they start?
We didn’t define the ages, because we would like to preserve the openness and diversity. And my hope is it will start after Jan. 1, 2021. It depends on the final negotiations on our budget.
Any last thoughts?
It’s really important to engage girls in concrete projects. It’s great to see there are a lot of girls interested in blockchains or high-performance computing or artificial intelligence. Now, we need to have more project-oriented initiatives — to show girls that we are not just here to listen to them and to show that we are concerned but involve them in the solution. ALINA TUGEND
A.I. Makes Room in Tech for Flexibility
Jamila Gordon is chief executive and founder of Lumachain, a technology platform that uses artificial intelligence to connect broken links in the global food supply chains and keep workers safe. She was born in Somalia and escaped its civil war when she was 18, ultimately moving to Australia.
How did you get into technology?
I went to university and chose accounting — I was good with numbers. But I had to take electives, and that gave an opportunity to do software development, and I fell in love with it. It was a level field because software development was so new — we were all learning at the same time. So, I switched majors — I’ve been 20 years in I.T.
It’s not easy for a woman in technology, particularly a woman of color, is it?
I did have my fair share of setbacks and difficulties. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, people hire people who look like them, and that’s typically men. I missed opportunities, but I lifted myself and went to organizations that wanted me to work with them.
Are things changing?
In traditional technology, I don’t think much has changed — there’s a lack of opportunities, lack of flexibility at the work force. In some cases, women feel it’s hard to fit in. But in artificial intelligence, it’s a new area.
Why is that?
It requires individualized work — you’re building models, training those models, building algorithms on your own. You can do it much more on your own time. You just have to be patient and teach the computer model everything it knows — it’s like a baby. It’s not traditional I.T. — you don’t need to be sitting in an office. Some people’s preference is to put children to bed and then do the work. I was one of those people in a previous life.
How have you used your company to help women?
We have 21 people (13 in Australia, eight offshore), of which eight are women. Before Covid, we worked from home two days and in the office three days. I wanted to attract talent, and I wanted to attract women — and dads. Now, we only go into the office on Wednesdays.
When the first woman started with us, I changed the setup in the office. The men worked in the open space and I was in an office. I moved out to the open space so she wouldn’t be alone. We all have to make conscious decisions on ways to move the needle. There are many ways to do it, and that’s my way.
Do you think the fact so many companies worldwide had to go remote may end up being a good thing for women in the work force and especially in technology?
The flexibility that women who work, including in A.I. and tech, have been requesting for years is now a reality in the post-pandemic world. I think it has unleashed the potential productivity that women have always offered but have sometimes been denied. ALINA TUGEND
Vaccine Access for Everyone, Rich and Poor
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is chairwoman of the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunization, known as Gavi; former finance minister and foreign minister of Nigeria; and co-author of “Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons.”
When we get a Covid-19 vaccine, how can leaders ensure that everyone has access to it? What does that step-by-step plan of action look like?
When we say “everyone has access,” we mean that not only people in rich countries but also people in poor countries have access. Vaccine nationalism with Covid is not going to work. You are not safe, even in a rich country, with all your people vaccinated, until everyone in the poor countries are also vaccinated. To do that, there’s only one game in town, and it’s called the COVAX facility, which has been developed by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization.
The idea of the COVAX facility is to be able to ensure that poor countries have equitable and affordable access when these vaccines become available. Right now, on one side, we have 92 member countries called the advanced market commitment side, which are going to be subsidized.
We’re raising money in order to lower the cost of the vaccines for them. On the other side are 94 self-financing countries. They are going to purchase vaccines through the COVAX facility. When we procure in bulk, for both the self-financing countries and other countries, it lowers the price. The more volume you can guarantee to manufacturers, the lower the price will be. So these countries that are part of the facility, even though they’re also procuring vaccines for themselves directly, when they join they get lower prices and they help lower the prices to poorer countries.
So far we’ve raised $1.8 billion and we need $2 billion this year. But we need $5 billion for 2021, and our objective is to manufacture two billion doses.
What are some of the logistical challenges of distributing the vaccine?
Getting a vaccine approved and licensed is one thing, getting it distributed is a whole other thing because you need strong health systems. For example, the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech needs to be stored in about minus 80 degrees Celsius. This is very rare; most of the vaccines require around minus 20 degrees, so they’re much easier to store and transport. So it’s going to be a challenge, particularly for tropical countries.
What lessons can the global health community learn from this pandemic to prepare for the next one?
There’s one big lesson: No one country can do it alone. You really need global solidarity and global cooperation.
No. 2 is that no country really had strong enough health systems to deal with this. It’s astonishing for people around the world to find that even the health systems of rich countries could not stand up to this. So we’ve got to put more investment into strengthening the health systems of all countries.
And the third thing is that we need to build a resilient response system for future pandemics. COVAX is actually part of a thing called the ACT Accelerator (Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator). If we can invest in this framework now and institutionalize it, we can save the world trillions of dollars in lost economic output in the future. When there’s another pandemic, we can just say, “Let’s go to the ACT accelerator,” and get what we need.
While the front-line health care workers are mostly women, you’re one of the few women at the male-dominated leadership level in global health. Does that impact how on the ground efforts are run?
There is no concentration of intellectual power that God gave to men only. It only makes sense, whether there’s a pandemic or not, to have equal distribution of men and women in global health.
More and more women are training as physicians, but we need those women to also get to the management levels. Since our front-line workers in this area are mostly female, we need a consciousness in leadership of women’s issues so we can design systems that make it possible for health care workers to do their jobs. ALISHA HARIDASANI GUPTA
On the Court With Purpose and Power
Candace Parker is a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association. A two-time Most Valuable Player, she was named the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. She played in the WNBA’s bubble — dubbed the “Wubble” — in Florida, protected from the coronavirus while supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
How worried were you initially, especially since you brought your 11-year-old daughter, Lailaa? Why did the Wubble work?
I was very apprehensive — I’m not going to lie. It was challenging for me to put aside that there’s a pandemic going on, and also everything going on in the community with social justice, making sure that we were doing what was right. My daughter was a huge advocate for going. Looking back, just thinking of everything that went into it, we were safer in there. The WNBA did an amazing job. It worked because we had players and organizations that bought in to what was required. Being able to have a platform night in and night out, to play with Breonna Taylor’s name on our jersey — that was extremely powerful. We played with a purpose, for sure.
You played for a Hall of Fame coach, Pat Summitt, at the University of Tennessee. What is her enduring leadership lesson?
I feel like a lot of people talk, but Coach, everything she said, she did herself. When she’s giving directions, she had the road map, the accolades and the sweat equity. I tried to prove a point to her my freshman year. She had gotten on me in practice,saying, “You don’t work hard enough.” So the next day, I was going to show her I was ready to work. We had a 6 a.m. practice. I got there at 3:50 a.m. She was already in her office, sitting at her desk.
What worries you most for your daughter’s generation: climate change, health care, economic inequality, gender equality?
You know what really worries me? It’s that we’re going to screw it up before they have a chance to accomplish anything. I have so much hope for this next generation. If you look at the way they are focused, their ability to communicate, their acknowledgment that everyone is different. They are coding! I worry we’re going to screw it up.
But you’re providing an example for them as part-owner of the newWomen’s National Soccer League team in Los Angeles, Angel City Football Club. You and Serena Williams brought your daughters into the ownership group. Why soccer?
I grew up playing soccer. I wanted to be an Olympic soccer player. I tell everybody they need to invest in and support women’s sports. But I need to put my money where my mouth is. Listening to different mentors, they talk about generational wealth, but also generational knowledge. I want my daughter to understand that it’s not just about sports, it’s about that women can do it. We can be a part of it, we can start it, we can finish it, we can do all of that. LIZ ROBBINS
A Moral Case for Women as Leaders
Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013, is chairwoman of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London and co-author of “Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons.”
You were elected deputy prime minister of Australia in 2007 and prime minister in 2010. How have things changed since then for women — for better or for worse?
I think things have gotten better, but I am certainly frustrated at the rate of change. We need things to keep getting better far more quickly. At least the public dialogue around gender equality and gender and leadership is much more to the fore now than it was when I was prime minister.
In your book, you write that the case for women’s leadership is a moral one. Talk me through that.
The moral case is that every individual is entitled to aspire to leadership in whatever area of life most appeals to them, and to reach that position of leadership without artificial barriers — whether that’s gender or race or anything else — holding them back. Democracies are a collective effort, and it makes it a poorer democracy if large classes of voters don’t have fair access to becoming the representatives, the people forming the governments, or making the laws in the parliaments.
I don’t think we should put the case for women’s leadership on the foundation stone that women leaders are always better, because if we do that, we are baking the sexism in. We are effectively saying the hurdle for a man to clear, to be viewed as an acceptable leader is a lower hurdle than for the woman to clear. And if we set up those differential hurdles, he’s only got to be OK, but she’s got to be amazing.
Covid-19 proved a point that almost any worker could have told you months if not years ago: that work wasn’t working very well for many people. What’s your view?
The pandemic has shined a big spotlight on two things that really matter for the future of work and for gender equality at work.
The first is how important our care work forces are. When times are tough, as they are now, the future of society rests on the shoulders of those who are prepared to go to work and care for others. Broadly and disproportionately, those workers are women. I certainly hope one of the things that we take with us in the days beyond the pandemic is a recognition of the value of that work, which should lead to better compensation, talking about it differently, acknowledging it.
The second is that for so many workers around the world, virtual work is a real, productive option. We can have more flexible arrangements and better descriptions of what merit is. It isn’t the old boys’ network and who goes for drinks after work. It’s about who gets things done. Taking the best of virtual work, I think, can reshape workplaces around flexibility and fair assessments of work, contribution and merit.
Do you think that businesses that go back to “normal” after the pandemic will pay a price in the long run?
Yes, I do. I know it can be hard to see it now, but we will get back to a stage in the global economy and in national economies when growth is strong, and so we will be back to the stage where there is a global war for the best talent. And both male and female talent will be attracted to the most agile and fair workplaces. And I’m not just talking about attracting the talent that lives near enough to the office to commute when necessary. I think this global disruption to working norms will mean that many businesses adapt and start sourcing the best talent wherever it is in the world.
Some might say that you can’t address women’s economic empowerment — say, their ability to work — until you fix the inequity of unpaid labor. What’s your take?
I think we need to address both issues at the same time. Every study always shows that women disproportionately do the domestic and caring labor in the home — even when the woman is the principal earner in a two-income family. We do have to change that, but I think it’s about enhancing women’s workplace opportunities at the same time that we are pushing harder on the agenda for the equal distribution of domestic labor.
But no matter how amazing the opportunities, if she’s standing at the sink doing the dishes, I don’t know how she’s going to take advantage of them.
I think There is a bit of a circle here, but more economic opportunity, more independence, more workplace flexibility does enable you to have the conversations at home that really need to be had. FRANCESCA DONNER