COVID-19 has undone progress on inequality in many corners of the world.
The virus has disproportionally affected minorities—lower-income communities that are more likely to be living in close quarters have suffered the highest levels of outbreaks. These communities not only have less access to care, but have been pushed further down the poverty line as retrenchments have resulted in many losing their homes.
When it comes to gender equality, the knock-on effects of the virus outbreak have more negatively affected women than men. More women have been laid off than men, women often bear greater care burdens, and there's been a worrying rise in domestic abuse calls across the world. As an example, Singapore women's rights group AWARE recorded a 112% increase in family violence calls in April 2020 versus the same month the prior year.
"The ramifications of COVID-19 have hit women so much harder," says Swati Bhattacharya, the chief creative officer at FCB Ulka. Bhattacharya, along with all other women interviewed for this piece, was a Women to Watch 2019 winner.
"Gender biases have become worse, women are losing their jobs more, domestic violence is on the rise, and observers say crime will go up as a result of unemployment that will mean cities will be seen as unsafe for women so they will be asked to stay home more. In India there is this concept that a good mother serves her children and husband first before herself—those practices in COVID when there is less food means she gets even less. Already one in two women in India have anemia—the statistics are scary. Whatever progress we made, we have gone back 10 years," explains Bhattacharya.
In the advertising industry, brands that would under normal circumstances look to address these societal chasms are tightening the purse strings, Bhattacharya notes.
"In advertising we try to make a brand immerse itself with a cause and give a brand a voice. But when money is tight and a brand is struggling what they want to do is tactical—they want to seduce the consumer with a price point. They don't believe thought leadership will move the needle for them," the agency leader says.
"I believe no matter our role we can make a difference. A big change always starts with one person recognising her power to change."
—Pavarisa Chumvigrant, chief marketing officer, Line Mobile
Pavarisa Chumvigrant, the chief marketing officer of Line Mobile in Thailand, says it is important for brands not to let social responsibility fall by the wayside during financial hardship.
"As a brand, we can be mindful in our communication and our treatment of our customers. While provocative and flashy messages sell, we must not forget our social responsibility to drive society forward and toward better changes," she says.
The marketer went on to add that agencies are a "spearhead of creativity" that can do "so much good with their incredible impact and reach".
"They can help push forward values that our society needs, such as inclusivity and diversity, by pushing for content that supports instead of undermines these values," Chumvigrant adds.
Critical to these efforts is ensuring those companies responsible for creating advertising are internally diverse. This has informed the creation of women in leadership initiatives, diversity quotas, mentoring, unconscious bias training—spearheaded by Campaign Asia-Pacific's Mandate for Change—in the pursuit of gender equality.
But if COVID-19 has unravelled progress on many elements of inequality in the world, what impact is it having on gender diversity initiatives like this?
According to a survey of Campaign Asia-Pacific readers, completed by 650 respondents, the biggest proportion (42%) believe there will be a slowdown in progress on gender diversity programmes in 2020 due to COVID-19. However, this was a slim majority; 40% said they did not expect gender diversity to stagnate in 2020, while 19% noted they were unsure.
"I think COVID-19 has presented a time for people to reflect on the many issues that matter. But will gender seem a priority, I'm not sure," one respondent noted.
Olivia Warren, the head of studio at Initiative Australia, says it is "quite distressing" that advances in gender diversity are being threatened by the impact of COVID-19.
"From my perspective there is no acceptable reason for COVID-19 to be “undoing” or “slowing down” progress for gender diversity," she says. "In fact, it should be the opposite. Businesses are having to evolve faster and in the next 12 months there will be a huge changes in how we work, who we work with and where. This should be seen as an opportunity to fast-track gender diversity, not as an excuse to slow it down."
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These sentiments were echoed by several women, who said their businesses have actually ramped up diversity initiatives in 2020 as they look to build a workplace that is fit for the future, including offering more flexible working environments for both men and women.
Anna Patterson, the vice president and MD of experience marketing agency George P. Johnson, notes: "If anything we have seen an increase in our internal programmes not a slowdown. Our work from home has meant deeper connections with our teams and the leaders in our business, working around the care burdens, our partners and our family needs. We have I think become more open and engaged during COVID-19 and transparent about the struggles."
Patterson adds that female employees have adjusted to working from home measures better than male employees.
"On the whole we have found female adjustment better than male—in an internal staff survey close to 90% of our female staff said they felt achievement working from home, and were accepting and embracing the change," she notes.
Lani Jamieson, the head of Matterkind Singapore and Malaysia, says COVID-19 has given people a chance to assess what is important to them, and what really matters.
"There is a sense of increased social responsibility and businesses have had to drastically adjust ways of working and adopt increased flexibility, eroding previously held social norms," Jamieson says. "This gives hope for a new normal that promotes equality, respect and flexibility which is underpinned by increased awareness, understanding and support for all individuals, not just women!"
"I see COVID as a catalyst for change. Period. The responsibility is on us to take action and decide whether it’s positive or negative change."
—Olivia Warren, head of studio, Initiative Australia
Sojern's general manager APAC Lina Ang also points out that the leadership of the world's top female politicians has brought conversations about gender equality to the forefront.
"Recent news and data also indicates some really strong results from women leaders of various different countries including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand, who are managing the COVID-19 crisis very well," Ang says. Sojern has an internal women's group focused on supporting, developing and empowering the next generation of leaders, and it is Ang's belief that this is an effective way to ensure a diverse pipeline of talent regardless of external factors.
Maddison Keogh, the director of client advice and management at Initiative Australia, says minorities and women may need to "shout a little louder" than before, as the world continues to go through a global pandemic and economic downturns. But she is optimistic that the world is coming together more than ever to tackle inequality.
"There has been a lot of conversation and coverage on the global stage around equality for all. Whether that be black lives, LGBTQI rights or women’s rights—now more than ever people are looking at what needs to change in their communities, workplaces, homes and countries to ensure equality for all," she says. "Women need to stand strong and support each other by contributing to women’s welfare groups, leading and supporting women’s rights initiatives and celebrating the success of women who are blazing trails for those around them."
Read our take on why we believe it is still important to spotlight women in Asia-Pacific.
Teads head of luxury APAC Katie Potter says advertisers should be using their voice to speak up about issues in this time, similar to how Nike has championed female athletes, and Budweiser has helped national women’s soccer league to find a corporate sponsor.
"There is still a long way to go but we look at the future through the steps of the present. My glass is always half full and I am confident we will continue to see change in the right direction," Potter surmises.