Returning to public service leadership with a toddler from maternity leave has always been a challenge for Emma. But the newly created job sharing position helped to make the balance possible. She was also fortunate to have found good childcare for her daughter.

With the latest lockdown restrictions closing childcare for non-essential workers, Emma has received limited but erratic support from busy grandparents and fears increasing her risk of contracting the virus as well.

Now that she is dealing with these competing demands of her job and her toddler, she is nearing the end of her tether and realizing how unsustainable the situation is.

I hear stories just like Emma’s every day as the Melbourne and Sydney lockdowns continue. The pressure on working mothers in particular continues to increase as women bear the majority of the increased physical, mental and emotional stress of caring for children in lockdown.

The closure of daycare centers and schools is the last drop for many and they have made the unfortunate decision to stop their work altogether or to take personal time off to look after their children all day.

The alternative is to continue the strenuous and often demoralizing home learning / zoom working / home juggling as best you can.

I am sure this will be very familiar to many women reading this.

The good news is that as vaccination coverage increases, lockouts will eventually become less likely, but it is sadly clear that the long-term effects in the workplace will be felt for years and women will be most disadvantaged.

A recent report from the Grattan Institute found that Australian women suffered a “triple blow” of job insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the economic disadvantage women face during their lifetime.

Not only did women lose more jobs than men – nearly 8 percent at the height of the crisis versus 4 percent for men – they also took more unpaid work and received less government support.

Single parents, most of whom are women, also have problems. While single mothers who worked in retail and hospitality were at the forefront of early downsizing, the Grattan report says only 13 percent of single mothers received the jobkeeper subsidy. The study also finds that single parents dropped out of the labor market more often than double-income couples during the crisis.

And let’s not forget the other supervisors. For those of us with aging parents and other caring responsibilities, keeping our loved ones safe and healthy is of great concern. This job almost always falls to women in a family.

Workplace economists and academics warn that disruptions in labor force participation could set back retirement pensions and long-term financial security for women and further undermine gender equality gains over time.

It’s already happening.

Troubling evidence that advances in gender equality outcomes can quickly fade, figures released this month by the Agency for Gender Equality (WGEA) show Australia’s national gender pay gap widening 0.8 percentage points to 14.2 percent Has. That means women who work full-time are now taking home $ 265.50 less per week than full-time men.

The WGEA announced the “Equal Pay Day 2021” on August 31 of this year, which marks the 61 additional days that women have to work from the end of the financial year in order to earn the same annual salary as men.

So what can we do to stop this negative trend?

Returning to the office feels a long way off right now, but we expect a return in the coming months, if only part-time. What is clear, however, is that hybrid working will continue to exist for years to come, so let’s not miss this opportunity. We need to learn the lessons of the past 18 months and make it work more fairly.

First, initial research has shown that women are more likely to work from home than men when we can go back to the office. Why? We all know men who appreciate the flexibility of working from home when it comes to childcare, homework help, cooking and shopping. But we also know that many men are secretly afraid to go to the boss and demand more flexible working hours for fear of not being taken seriously.

It is a legitimate fear: Research has shown that men are far more likely than women to be denied flexible work requests and are much more likely to be openly stigmatized when they work flexibly. We can never achieve equality in our workplaces and an equal sharing of unpaid housework if managers continue to treat men and women differently.

The new hybrid work culture that is likely to emerge offers some flexibility advantages, but also brings with it new types of discrimination potential. The most obvious way of working from home can easily lead to a lack of visibility in the office. If the boss isn’t meeting you in the office, you may not be at the forefront of a plum project that could aid your future career advancement.

And remote work has also created a culture of “always on” for many, which also exerts pressure and many describe that they have difficulties switching off. They fear that if they are not always available, their professional development will be affected.

Emma knows the constant tug-of-war between work meetings and encouraging and participating in her child’s learning all too well. She described a special work session that was interrupted by her toddler who was in dire need of help building a triceratops out of paper plates. She is lucky to have colleagues who either find themselves in the same situation themselves or understand the difficult juggling process that COVID has caused among primary caregivers.

Understanding and caring for supervisors and colleagues will help us survive this difficult time now, but until we address the structural and cultural drivers that work against women’s equality, including outright discrimination, unconscious bias, and rigid expectations about gender , real progress will be slow.

The obligations under the new Victorian Equality Act, which gives authority to my role as the first – and first Australian – commissioner on gender equality in the public sector, will hold more than 300 organizations publicly accountable for significant advances in addressing systemic issues and cultural drivers to achieve gender inequality. The law requires transparent reporting, and it has real teeth – my role has the strongest enforcement powers than any other equality law in the country.

These aspects together give us the greatest chance to fill these gaps in gender equality – and show the rest of the country how to do it.