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At a Pivot Point: Will COVID-19 Push Gender Equality Forward or Back?

Three Key Insights from Room to Read’s Recent Panel Discussion | March 31, 2021

Girls' Education

As future generations look back on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on women, what will the story be? Room to Read recently convened a panel of corporate and nonprofit executives – all of whom are supporters of Room to Read – to share their insights and strategies for creating a more gender-equal world. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we spotlight their perspectives below.


For Lorelei Williams, senior vice president of grant programs for Comic Relief US, the non-profit behind Red Nose Day, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the complex societal problems highlighted by COVID-19 were in existence long before the virus entered our lives. “I think it’s really important that we hold the light to the reality that this isn’t something new to the women and children we serve,” Lorelei said. “For us, and for so many of the organizations who are fierce frontline warriors like Room to Read, we know the pandemic has massively exacerbated so many of the issues that girls and young women are facing, but they are not new issues.”

Indeed, an April 2020 United National Policy Brief outlines some of the factors that make women more vulnerable during this crisis. The policy brief states, “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.”

A separate report from UN Women shows that bring the total number of women and girls living on USD 1.90 or less, to 435 million.

Lorelei urged swift action to support women and other groups facing personal and economic hardships due to COVID-19. “We have a chance to get our act together,” she said. “We can do it, but we don’t have much time. The clock is ticking.”


Vicky Tsai, Founder & CEO of Tatcha and Room to Read Global Board member, similarly acknowledged the urgency of addressing inequality issues in the face of the global pandemic. “The idea that somebody else is going to come save us and fix the problems is not happening,” she said. “I’m in a rush to try to make a difference.”

For Vicky, making a difference has meant investing a portion from each purchase of a Tatcha product to fund girls’ education through Room to Read. Since its inception seven years ago, Tatcha’s Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures Program has funded more than 5 million days of school.

Supporting equality through education was something Vicky planned to do from the day her company launched – which happened to be the day her daughter was born. “I thought about how my daughter’s ability to read and get an education was going to change the trajectory of her life, and there are girls all over the world who look like her and do not have that opportunity,” Vicky explained.

Investing in education is essential, agreed Nadja Swarovski, Chairperson of the Swarovski Foundation and Member of Swarovski Crystal Business Executive Board, an organization that has supported Room to Read since 2015. In fact, Nadja’s message to girls is, “Get as educated as possible because knowledge is power.” Nadja noted that education extends beyond the classroom to include a child’s family, community and environment. She cited her father and grandfather as being positive forces, helping her develop her skills and encouraging her to engage in physical pursuits that were typically dominated by men. In fact, Nadja’s grandfather, who was in the U.S. Navy, encouraged her to join the U.S. Airforce. “I didn’t follow his advice, but I really appreciate that he would have given me the credit and believed that I could do that,” Nadja said.

Indeed, mentors, role models and sponsorship are all important elements of creating a more gender-equal workforce, according to panelists, who recommended that professionals find those relationships inside and outside of their organizations. Lydie Hudson, CEO of Sustainability, Research & Investment Solutions for Credit Suisse, which has supported Room to Read for more than 15 years, said that another piece of advice that’s always stuck with her is the concept of “asking for the order,” from Carla Harris’ book, “Expect to Win.” 

“What Carla’s book reminded me of is that sometimes you have to be pretty brave and creative,” said Lydie. “I always say to the women I sponsor and mentor that sometimes you have to create the intellectual journey for your manager to understand what your ambitions are.”

Insight #3: The Double Bottom Line is Real


Lydie also noted that corporations have a significant role to play in creating the right conditions for equality – including initiating policies that support it. Vicky agreed and emphasized that doing the right thing isn’t just altruism – it’s just good business. For example, Vicky said the social mission at Tatcha’s core helps them attract talent and keep them inspired. “The entrepreneurs whom I most admire have been unashamed and unabashed about having a social mission at the core of their work,” she said. “They have an ability to have a double bottom line and acknowledge stake-holders and shareholders.”

Sonny Kalsi, CEO of BentallGreenOak and a Room to Read New York Regional Board Member, said he’s seen a lot of positive change since he first started his career more than 30 years ago as a “brown person” in an industry dominated by white males, but much more needs to be done. To create a more equitable environment, Sonny’s firm has set measurable DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) benchmarks, including that two-thirds of the organization’s hires should be women and minorities. “Financial services/private equity is inherently quantitative,” said Sonny. “That’s why we put the 67 percent in place because that’s a quantitative measure that we can measure ourselves against.”

Sonny’s firm also uses the acronym ARC (Attract, Retain and Cultivate) as a framework for policies that promote diversity. When it comes to retention, for example, it’s important to make it easier for parents to stay in the workforce, according to Sonny. To help do this BentallGreenOak identified the most progressive maternity and paternity policy in the industry and then went a step further with their offering. This not only supports staff but helps the firm attract and retain top talent, said Sonny.

Lydie pointed out that promoting equity not only makes a company stronger – it also makes the organization more attractive to potential investors. “The flywheel of doing the right thing is increasingly becoming table stakes for institutional investors,” said Lydie. “We are at a different level, it is a different day, and I expect that will only continue.”