Managing crisis: Reflections on International Women’s Day 2009

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President of the European Professional Women's Network Mirella Visser asks, "What will be the impact of the crisis on women in the workforce and how can women increase their chances?"

It is too easy to say that every crisis offers opportunities and women just have to ‘get on with it’. History has shown that a crisis hits hardest those whose position on the labour market is weakest. But also that a well-informed and pro-active attitude increases the chances to benefit from a crisis instead of suffer from it. This IWD will be a day of reflection and action planning for women on how to survive and even take advantage of the crisis.

Women are the engine of growth
Women’s labour force participation rates have spectacularly increased over the past decades. Currently, in Europe shows that 57 percent of women are employed compared to 71 percent of men.  Women have become the engine of Europe’s economic growth by taking up six of the eight million newly created jobs since 2000. According to a 2007 McKinsey’s study, the gap between women’s and men’s labour participation rate needs to be filled for Europe to remain competitive; if not, the EU will have a labour force shortage of over 24 million workers by the year 2040. Enabling women to combine work and family, companies have offered part time work, temporarily or structurally, and other facilities, spurred by governmental incentives. As a result 31 percent of European working women work part time, compared to 7 percent of men currently being in part-time employment.

Indian women labourers load bricks on their head at a construction site in Kolkata on 8 March 2009 International Women Day. Women labourers earn 70 INR (1.35 USD) as a day wage for eight hours of work while a male counterpart earns 85 INR (1.65 USD) for the same. International Women’s Day provides an opportunity for communities to recognise and celebrate local women’s achievements and the contribution they continue to make to their area.


Significant risks
Although women’s position in the workforce has been strengthened spectacularly, a closer look reveals significant risks. When recession strikes, CEO’s of companies implement severe cost-cutting as the first measure to safeguard the continuity of their businesses. The first functions and departments that will take the blow are those that do not directly contribute to the top or bottom line of the company, such as HR or other supporting functions. Unfortunately those areas are often the ones in which women thrive.

Deciding for you
Another concern is that women are still underrepresented in decision-making functions in corporations. They are often less informed about or involved in management’s action plan for survival and consequently less able to shift themselves into functions that are not at risk. This lack of women in decision-making means that women get ‘decided for’ and the impact of decisions on the female work force may not be taken into account sufficiently.

Doing the job or politics
AFP PHOTO / JACQUES DEMARTHON Last but not least, in times of crisis competition for jobs gets harder. When it comes to reorganisations, restructurings, women are more inclined than men to take a severance pay package offered through the company’s social plan and leave. Often women like to continue to focus on doing their job instead of doing politics.  Already women working part-time are reporting that their commitment to the job and the company is being questioned. The widely acclaimed benefits of part-time work may turn into a disadvantage for women if we are not careful in addressing the unfairness of the question.

The impact will vary
All in all, we may expect that if cost-cutting and reorganisations become rampant, more women than men will suffer the consequences. However, the impact will vary across sectors. Women employed by government and government-related institutions may suffer less impact from the crisis as governments are widely encouraged to increase spending. The same goes for certain sectors like health care and the professions. Among the worst hit will be workers in the consultancy industry, the financial sector, travel and leisure, event’s organisers, just to name a few.

Crisis – what crisis?
So, how to position yourself to maximise the impact of the crisis in a positive way? How to create and seize the new opportunities around? Here are six practical pieces of advice.

Work smarter not harder
The time has come to practice your delegation skills and create time for you to dedicate to networking and getting informed on your company’s strategic survival plans. Visiting coffee machines, gathering around water coolers, joining the smokers outside and participating in receptions, celebrations and other company events: now is the time to invest in building and maintaining relationships, inside and outside the company.

Voice your ambition
Do not stay silent; make sure your plan for progress is known widely, within your work environment and at home. By voicing your ambition you do not only convince yourself what your direction will be, you also convince others. It increases the chances that you will get what you want, even or especially in times of crisis. When a manager needs to choose whom to let go, the one who is pro-active and ambitious may get preferential treatment over the silent and elusive ones.  

Manage your professional visibility
Being known for your achievements and professional skills provides you with more options to choose from. Check if your profile on professional online networks like LinkedIn is up to date and appealing.  


 A women activist holds a banner during a rally on March 7, 2009 in Rome on the eve of the International Woman's Day.

Become indispensable
This often relates to being unique in the way you execute your tasks. It is about having the key sales contacts or connections with top clients. Another way is to have unique skills or experience, which cannot easily be duplicated or replaced. It may also be that you are part of influential informal networks in the company or that you built a quality reputation in your field within and outside the company. Analyse if you are indispensable and if not, take action to become so.

Improve the transferability of your skills
It pays off to assess your skills and question their transferability to other companies, industries, sectors or self-employment.  We are often focused on acquiring knowledge to get the job done without paying attention to the qualities we have developed along the way that can be applied to other businesses than the one you are in now. Your “core competence”, which is the ability to combine your learning, education and skills to perform certain tasks excellently, is what makes you unique and survive this crisis.

Think outside the box
New initiatives for businesses are being developed as you are reading this; new concepts of financing projects and companies for instance, through the internet and by private individuals. It may be the start of a new industry of banking, community banking, close to home and without the complexities of the current banking system. Companies will become for sale, offering great opportunities for those who still have cash. In addition, new products will be developed as companies discover new client groups and markets. What about investment products for women for instance? Already in 2004, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann proved that women are better investors because they are more risk-averse and not inclined to take decisions driven by ego. No doubt a company, led by women perhaps, will start looking into developing and marketing a new product for this emerging market.

A girl sits next to a photograph as she waits for the arrival of Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a Women's Handicraft exhibition during a gathering of women to mark International Women's Day in Kabul on March 8, 2009

Mirella VisserNumerous activities and events are being organised on and around IWD, including webcasts and webinars. These activities will provide numerous chances to get information, get connected, and get started on your action plan of your ‘career after the crisis’.

Mirella Visser, President of  EuropeanPWN




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