Best Practice

Catherine The Great. Coronavirus. And how women are facing a workplace setback.

So what have Catherine The Great, COVID-19, working women, and Hulu got in common?

Apart from the fact that Netflix challenger and Disney-owned Hulu premiers a new series based on the fabled Russian empress today, May 15th, any commonality might seem nothing more than the ramblings of someone frazzled from home working and chronic Zoomalgia.

Be that as it may, bear with me.

The Hulu series, The Great, is billed as ‘an occasionally true story’, but its launch in the middle of a global pandemic that is having a disproportionate impact on working women is interesting for reasons its backers might never have imagined.

But first, not up to speed with Catherine’s story and not that interested in history? No worries, we’re not back in school here.

Just to recap, in a few words: Catherine kicked ass in Russia in the mid-1700s, shafting her idiot drunkard husband Peter III to become Empress. Nice.

In so doing, she shattered the glass ceiling for women more than two centuries before the phrase was coined by the American writer Marilyn Loden in 1978.

She went on to rule for 34 years in what is still regarded by many as Russia’s golden era.

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And in another nod to where we find ourselves in 2020, desperately searching for a COVID-19 vaccine in an era of anti-vaxxer hysteria, in the late 1700s the Russian empress blazed a controversial trail to innoculate her people against a devastating outbreak of smallpox, which claimed over 400,000 lives in Europe.

Today, COVID-19 has a fatality rate of around 3.5%. Back then, smallpox killed around 30% and a third of victims went blind.

“My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger,” — Catherine The Great.

By 1800 her single-minded, single-handed campaign had led to the inoculation of over two million people in Russia.

Quite the achievement.

Now, back to today: it’s not as if I think of Catherine The Great a lot.

But the idea of a woman 250 years ago going from being a nobody (OK, she was a minor princess, but no big deal) to becoming one of the most remarkable female leaders in history, tackling head-on a rampaging killer disease, and the irony of working women today suffering most in the workplace because of the COVID-19 pandemic, well, I just don’t think it’s an irony we should let slip by unnoticed or without remark.

Because there’s no doubt the current crisis is hitting working women harder than their male counterparts, as major international upheavals always do.

This week I read advice from a leading HR executive to a 40-year-old woman who asked her “How can I best use this time to boost my career?”

The executive in question is someone I have followed and admired for some time, Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer at Unilever. She is a consistent beacon of wisdom and too-rare common sense.

In this instance, her advice as a leading working woman to another working woman was weighted appropriately, but not exclusively, on personal development. For example, upskilling and taking advantage of online learning opportunities. And, of course, she also focused on ambition.

“I always advise people to be explicit about ambition – be clear about the destination, but instead of obsessing about it, try to focus more on the learning trajectory that can get you there,” — Leena Nair

“It’s important, however, to acknowledge that this a scary, uncertain time for people, so ambition will take a bit of reframing,” she told The Sunday Times.

It certainly will, but maybe in more ways than Leena had the scope to articulate within the constraints of that article.

Because COVID-19 is taking a greater toll on working women all over the world than it is on their male counterparts.

From female academics in the US and the UK to migrant factory workers in Bangladesh, and healthcare workers everywhere, women workers are bearing the brunt.

“According to the United Nations, across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women simply by virtue of their sex.”

Its policy brief published last month – The Impact of COVID-19 on Women – warned that the limited gender equality gains of the past decade are at risk of being rolled back: “The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic”.

In the global health and social care sector, 70% of workers in 174 countries survey by the World Health Organization are women, and even pre COVID-19 they earned 11% less than their male counterparts.

And as the World Economic Forum points out: “As the fight against COVID-19 continues, an increasing number of women around the world are on the front lines. Many of them will be expected to work longer hours while juggling domestic responsibilities such as childcare”.

“Compounded economic impacts are felt especially by women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty,” the UN report underlines.

And, of course, female workers also dominate the sectors hardest hit by the crisis, particularly retail and hospitality.

However, the fall-out for women workers is far from being confined to the most vulnerable or the poorest. For example, it is also being seen in academia, where women – who frequently shoulder a greater share of family responsibilities, especially childcare, as they do in society at large – seem to be submitting fewer research papers to academic journals during the crisis than their male equivalents.

“This threatens to derail the careers of women in academia,” according to Leslie Gonzales, a professor of education administration at Michigan State University.

While the article-submission data is to date more anecdotal than evidential, Gonzales says the anecdotes are consistent with broader patterns in academia: “If men and women are at home, men “find a way” to do more academic work,” she told The Lily, a Washington Post publication.

Which begs the question: what would a woman who made great strides for the education of women in her homeland make of it all if she was around today? A woman who established the first state-financed higher education institution for women in her country over 250 years ago?

She might rightly say that life’s a hell of a lot better and healthier for most of the world’s women than it was back then. Infinitely better than she could ever have imagined.

But she might also ask why women still have to fight so hard.

For fair play and equal pay, for starters.

Then again, Catherine The Great just might do something about it – and get others to do the same.

Just a mad thought from a social distance – for the day that’s in it.

Main image: Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in Hulu’s The Great. Picture courtesy of Hulu.

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