| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

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Zara Nanu
Dr. Zara Nanu MPA ‘06, CEO of GapSquare (Credit: Tom Weller )

The crises brought on by COVID-19 have had disparate impacts on women around the globe, rolling back the economic gains of the last decades. Yet, Middlebury Institute alumna Dr. Zara Nanu MPA ’06, cofounder and CEO of GapSquare, says that with the right response, the long-term impact could be positive.

Closing the gender pay gap and helping companies create a more equitable workplace through innovative software, research, and consultancy are at the core of GapSquare. Originally from Moldova, Nanu is currently based in Bristol, England. After working for years in the nonprofit world, mainly on issues related to women’s rights, she founded GapSquare with her business partner to deliver a data and research driven approach to creating a more just work environment. She was recently appointed a member of the Global Future Council on New Agenda for Equity and Social Justice at the World Economic Forum.

Regarding the impact of COVID-19 specifically, Nanu says there are two sides to it. “On the one hand, we have the lower paid essential sectors, including the care economy, and a lot of women are working in care and as nurses. They are often not paid very well, but they are on the front lines, and they have been on the front lines from the beginning.” There is also other essential work that is predominantly done by women, such as in supermarkets. These women have been impacted as they have to be physically present to do their jobs and get paid despite the risks.

On the other hand, “women in nonessential jobs have been impacted in a very different way in that they were pretty much sidelined from the beginning.” As an example, Nanu says, “when the furloughs came in the UK, a lot of times it was the women who went first because that corresponded with the time children needed homeschooling.” In that way women took on care responsibilities at home, and when companies offered furloughs, women put themselves forward so that they would have flexibility to do that. “At the same time, companies were making decisions and moving forward, in terms of making some changes and restructuring—and if you are on furlough you are out of those decision-making processes. This has been continuous throughout the pandemic.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force in September.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force in September. Nanu says the impact of what those numbers represent is multidimensional. She points to the model being presented to younger generations of women as women being the ones to sacrifice jobs and take on care responsibilities. But perhaps more alarming are the difficulties women will face re-entering the fast-moving job market after being away for six months, or even one or two years. “Businesses are changing so quickly because they have to adapt to new requirements and new policies, and the world of work they are rebuilding is very different from the world of work women left.”

Occupational segregation in pay is one of the main explanations why women are more likely to leave their jobs and take on care roles. Occupations that are performed by a majority of women pay less in general than occupations performed by a majority of men. “That is something we need to review in the context of rebuilding this new economy,” Nanu says, emphatically, “and is something we are pushing for from our end, because we’ve seen over the past months that the jobs we rely on the most are the jobs done by nurses, teachers, by the person selling us food in a supermarket—and without those jobs we would not have made it. So, the whole narrative around those being the essential workers, that being essential work—I think we should take that on and implement that in how we view pay and compensation and reward jobs in general as a society. Because what we have now is a huge discrepancy between a person doing data science in an office and someone working a care job.”

At GapSquare I have noticed a greater willingness for people to get on board with more progressive agendas and try something new because the old is failing them.
— Dr. Zara Nanu MPA '06

In the end, we have an opportunity to do better when we rebuild the economy. “It is not an easy task,” Nanu admits but adds that she is optimistic in the willingness of policy makers and business leaders to shift their approach. “What we have seen is that businesses that were more inclusive because they had been disrupting themselves through creating more diversity and inclusion before COVID have been more agile and adaptable to this change that is happening now. What we want to do is take some of that practice and build on it, because if you build diversity and inclusion into your core, you become more resilient to change, and change happens all the time—some changes obviously bigger than others.”

Nanu says another factor is the Black Lives Matter movement. “More companies are now actively looking at pay in terms of gender equity and also for people of color. Public policy has a strong role to play. In countries where the pay gap is regulated, the gap is closing faster than in countries where there is no mandate reported.” Nanu stresses her view that it is important to balance creating policies that address these issues, with policies that companies are actually willing to adopt.

“I have been thinking about this a lot for the past months, that big change happens slowly. Even though COVID is creating a lot of change fast, I think that we will see a positive impact on gender if more of us pull around this agenda, but it will take a little time.” Nanu says that at GapSquare they have noticed “a greater willingness for people to get on board with more progressive agendas and try something new because the old is failing them. So if we mobilize a bit more and put more around this momentum of creating gender equality and diversity, that is when we can see more accelerated progress.”

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Eva Gudbergsdottir