COVID-19 Gender equality Podcast

Podcast! A gender gap of pandemic proportions

I am super excited that I got to join Yumi Stynes on an episode of Ladies We Need to Talk  “A Pandemic of Epic Proportions” 

 You can listen here

[Published 19 May 2020]

From the Ladies We Need to Chat Episode guide:

Guess who is way worse off in pandemics? Yup — women. While we’re leading the charge on the frontline by slogging away in jobs like nursing, teaching and aged care, our purses are copping a flogging now and into the future. More women than men have lost their jobs during this crisis and there are no prizes for picking who does the lion’s share of home-schooling. COVID-19 is creating a gendered storm of pandemic proportions (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves).

The good news is, other women are the ones helping us through this crisis. Gender inclusion commentator, Amy Haddad, says we have some very finely honed skills in just shovelling through shit. And, you know, we just keep on shovelling

Thanks to Yumi and the team, and to the ABC for the chance to join in. 


articles COVID-19 Gender equality

Is the US bullying the UN to dump sexual & reproductive rights?


Also published 16 June in Broad Agenda  

In the middle of a pandemic, the US is opposing women’s basic human right to determine what happens to their bodies. 



Unless you are a multilateral gender nerd like me you may not know that 2020 is the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – or the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. This is the resolution that finally recognised that women and girls experience conflict differently to men, that we should protect women and girls from violence in conflict, and work with women to prevent conflict.  

Critically, the WPS agenda underscores that women’s participation in peace processes is essential to lasting peace.

There have been a further nine UN Security Council resolutions on WPS since 2000, but progress has been disappointingly slow. And not just because talk is cheap and action difficult, or because war – both making and peacebuilding – is a bloke fest, but because some countries actively oppose women’s human rights.

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In April 2019, the Security Council debated a resolution on sexual violence in conflict intended to advance a survivor-centered approach that holds perpetrators to account, ends stigma and ensures appropriate support for survivors. But many, myself included, thought this resolution was a bad idea. Why? We knew the US would blow it up. And we were right.

The US has a veto in the Security Council which it threatened to use unless every reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) was removed, including any direct references to the previous WPS resolutions mentioning SRHR.

Nadia Murad and Amal Clooney had addressed the Security Council that morning on the need for support for survivors and watched on as the Security Council adopted UNSCR2467 – a resolution directly focused on sexual violence and rape survivors that contains no mention of SRHR.


There’s a whole paragraph on women who get pregnant as a result of rape but no reference to reproductive health. Against this low bar, UNSCR2493 was adopted in October 2019. It merely called for the full implementation of previous WPS resolutions, but on adoption, the US declared this did not include resolutions referencing SRHR. Seriously. And given these dynamics, there is no hope of using the 20th anniversary to progress the conversation on WPS.

Chillingly, this schmozzle is part of a longer-running opposition to SRHR. This blanket term covers issues including sexuality education, STI prevention, LGBTIQA+ health services, family planning and – yes – abortion.

Abortion is the key controversy, but there is also wrangling around sexuality education (especially from the abstinence crowd).

Abortion is the key controversy, but there is also wrangling around sexuality education (especially from the abstinence crowd) and LGBTIQA+ services.

SRHR is the compromise umbrella that avoids the need to unpick challenging specifics. But if there is pressure against even these vague words then we risk silencing a core discussion about human rights and bodily autonomy.

When we gloss over the need for survivors of sexual violence to access specific health support, we gloss over the fact that choice – including access to safe and legal abortion – is key to women’s dignity, their health and their rights.

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The US is now working to exclude SRHR from COVID-19 responses. And it isn’t using a veto; it is using millions of dollars and seems willing to tear down key institutions to get its way.

US disapprobation over WHO’s handling of COVID-19 was a trigger to pull the pin. But conservative groups have been lobbying for this since 2003 when WHO released  Safe Abortion Technical and Policy guidance. That sent conservative groups into a spin, arguing that WHO had overreached its mandate.

Not long before the US withdrew from WHO, John Barsa, the acting administrator of USAID wrote to the UN Secretary-General requesting he remove references to SRHR ‘and its derivatives’ from the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHR).

The UN estimates that COVID-19 will see 47 million women lose access to contraceptives, resulting in seven million unwanted pregnancies

Compare this against  UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, that estimates that COVID-19 will see 47 million women lose access to contraceptives, resulting in seven million unwanted pregnancies. And while the US has withdrawn from the WHO, many responses, including the GHR, are funded outside the WHO and the US is clearly prepared to throw its weight around to prevent funding for SRHR.

Access to safe and legal abortion saves lives. It is foundational to women’s control over their bodies, which is a fundamental human right. It’s easy to think that UN resolutions are a complicated acronym soup, but the US dummy spit over UNSCR2467 has real implications for how resources are allocated, results reported, and attention focused.

And if you needed any more fuel to fire your rage, consider this: the US is prepared, in the middle of a crisis, to pull the plug on life-saving funding because it opposes women’s basic human right to determine what happens to their bodies. If it is successful, women will die.


articles COVID-19

Metaphorical militarisation: Covid-19 and the language of war


Students from the Sydney Cooper School preparing a large poster which will form part of the decoration for the Westgate Tower in Canterbury’s Weapons Week. A tank, a warship and Winston Churchill feature largely, with the slogan ‘Fight For Freedom’. (Photo by Fred Morley/Getty Images)

Also published 13 May in The Strategist as part of ASPI’s 2020 series on women, peace and security 

‘[W]e are in a war against this virus and all Australians are enlisted to do the right thing.’

— Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 60 Minutes interview, 22 March 2020



Covid-19 is consistently framed as a war by both politicians and the media, and why not? This is an existential crisis that will change our lives, possibly forever, and addressing the pandemic requires decisive action, concentrated resources and community-wide cooperation.

Many useful analyses of the relevance of the women, peace and security agenda in responding to Covid-19 have been published that might be read as implying that the war metaphor is legitimate or accurate. But, in reality, WPS principles and feminist foreign-policy analysis help us understand that the war framing is fundamentally unhelpful for three reasons: it alienates and divides people and groups, it ducks accountability for change, and it is really unimaginative at a time when we need to develop more creative and inclusive responses to big challenges.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison leans towards metaphor rather than the outright war rhetoric of his counterparts in the US, the UK and France. His communications are also steeped in nationalism: he talks of summon[ing] the spirit of the Anzacs … [o]f those who won the great peace of the Second World War and defended Australia’ and affirming that ‘Australians will always be Australians’.

Whether it’s coming from Morrison, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron, the reference is clearly to World War II. As the renowned research professor Cynthia Enloe, who studies gender and militarism, writes, ‘leaders cherry-pick their wars and cherry-pick what they want us to remember about each war’. This sidesteps the complexity of war and conflict while harking back to a less-contested, male and white ‘militarized nostalgia’ around sacrifice, leadership and making do. It assumes that ‘war’ is something we all understand and are inspired by.

But linking ‘Australianness’ to World War II to rally or reassure citizens in our Covid-19 response assumes cultural understanding and experience that are not shared equally. It ignores the reality that nearly half of all Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas and have Australian identities forged long after the war. It overlooks the fact that only 2% of Australians are old enough to have a living memory of the war. It is silent on the exclusion of Indigenous people from the process of ‘nation-making’ through war and the ongoing exclusion of Australia’s frontier wars from official recognition. It ignores the contributions of Australian peace movements, in which women played prominent roles, and it fails to acknowledge that women’s contributions in war and in peace have been historically (and arguably contemporaneously) marginalised by militarised and masculine constructs of ‘ bravery and service’.

When we use the language of war to symbolise something good and noble for the purposes of crisis messaging, we ignore the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls and their marginalisation from decision-making in both war-making and peacebuilding. Papering over the very real and painful experiences of women in war is a poor way to reassure a community. And it’s particularly tone-deaf given that our Covid-19 response is built on women’s unpaid labour in the home and poorly paid and underappreciated labour in the caring and teaching sectors.

War rhetoric can also, by design or otherwise, dampen critical discourse. Such rhetoric implies defence of an ideal way of life to which we yearn to return—‘ [W]e must not allow [the virus] to change who we are as Australians’. By excluding the possibility of change, we place off-limits any examination of underlying inequalities that exacerbate the impact of the virus, which in turn ‘externalises responsibilities for the fact that our system is ill-equipped to protect people’.

War framing suggests an urgency in which ‘now’ is never the time for critique—in wartime, we band together, we do not criticise. This is sadly familiar for those working in WPS, where too often we are too busy with conflict or too anxious for a quick peace deal to hear from women or give them decision-making power. But a further lesson from Enloe is that the construction of post-conflict societies happens concurrently with conflict. If we want to imagine an alternative way of life to be constructed ‘post-war’, now is the only time we have.

But perhaps the most egregious issue with viewing our response to a major crisis through a war lens is its complete lack of imagination. It’s an indictment on us collectively that we can’t think of a peaceful frame of reference for our need for community and state action and solidarity in response to a shared challenge. If our only response to a threat like Covid-19 is to force it into a war construct and slap conflict metaphors all over it, then we back ourselves into a dangerously narrow understanding of security.

Such a habit does not bode well for a more inclusive reimagining of security that takes account of global challenges like climate change, or domestic challenges like economic inequality and pervasive domestic violence. It not only suggests a lack of imagination in how we frame responses to these challenges but also raises the risk that any response (and attendant resources) will be militarised and/or co-opted by ‘hard’ security sectors. Instead, we need to be open to a conception of security that considers state and human security from multiple points of view, and that has other tools in the toolbox besides war.

War framing is easy—it provides a linguistic shortcut for the solidarity and sacrifice needed to move through a crisis—but it’s lazy, it limits our imagination and it denies us the opportunity for a more sophisticated and inclusive framing for how we meet complex security challenges.

Annabelle Lukin, associate professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, puts it best:

In the new kind of coming together that this virus is forcing on us, it’s time to put away the dangerous book for boys, and to turn away from one of our most beloved sources of strength, courage and inspiration.

We must give birth to new metaphors of unity and commonwealth. We might save even more lives than this deadly virus looks set to take away.




10 things you need to know about human rights and COVID-19

Also published in Broad Agenda

All you need for human rights to be under threat is a crisis. But the good news is that right now is always the best time to fight for human rights, and there are some straight-forward things we can focus on right away…



The UN has called for the protection of human rights in COVID-19 responses given concerns the pandemic provides cover for further persecution of political and human rights activists, and that the crisis will exacerbate inequality. It is tempting to imagine these as distant threats, peculiar to oppressive regimes.

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The aged care Royal Commission has been suspended.

But here’s the thing – all you need for human rights to be under threat is a crisis. Here are five ways that, even in the most generous and equitable societies, a crisis puts pressure on human rights:

1. In a crisis, decision making happens quickly, with reduced scrutiny, reduced consultation and reduced analysis of outcomes. This is made worse if public sector capacity is weak, if data is poor or, as is the case with COVID, parliament cannot function as usual. Ultimately, this leads to a high risk that crisis responses unintentionally exacerbate existing inequality.

2. Human rights gains can easily slip back as crises lead to poverty increases, or as specific programs are diverted or stalled. Crises puts stress on social structures which can result in increasing racism, discrimination and violence.

3. Crises lead to rapid budget and policy reprioritisation, which often side-lines human rights commitments, services and institutions, either because they are not perceived as immediately relevant, or are considered an unaffordable luxury. Also at risk are the data and analysis that underpin evidence-based policy. Also concerning is that this re-prioritisation carries across into efforts to repair post-crisis budgets, often disproportionately impacting the most marginalised.

4. In crises, constraints on our rights become more acceptable – especially limits on freedom of movement and protection of privacy. While these may be justified, proportionate and time bound, it is critical to understand how these restrictions impact vulnerable populations and to monitor for unintended and unequal consequences.

5. Crises often crowd out the focus on day-to-day human rights concerns. In Australia, long-standing issues of gender inequality, the rights of First Nations peoples, poverty, disability rights and aged care remain urgent – Royal Commissions on these last two might be stalled, but will resume. Similarly, the Religious Discrimination Bill, which directly threatens women’s health, remains in play, as does the wholly unnecessary Senate inquiry into the family law system. There is a risk that when these processes resume, they will receive less scrutiny than otherwise because the human rights landscape has increased in complexity and activists and advocates will be exhausted by COVID-19.

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Disability rights remain a priority.

The good news is that right now is always the best time to fight for human rights, and there are some straight-forward things we can focus on right away. Here are five actions that are relevant today:

  1. Bake it in: The parliament has established a select committee on COVID-19 to scrutinise the government’s response. This is an important step, but the terms of reference for the committee is 43 words long, with no mention of human rights. Submissions are open, which is an opportunity to propose that this and all future COVID responses include specific focus on human rights and equity of outcomes, including for the most vulnerable.
  2. Take an intersectional approach: Support the efforts of groups advocating for the rights of First Nations, women, workers, migrants and refugees,  culturally and linguistically diverse communities, LGBTQI+, older people, and people with disability  and back their campaigns to develop appropriate responses and protect essential services and funding
  3. Invest in data, analysis and policy capacity: Specifically:
    • Get behind the ABS time use survey which is being conducted this year after a 14 year gap. This survey will be critical for understanding the impact of working from home on the division of household labour and we’ll need future surveys for comparison.
    • Advocate for census data on sexual orientation and gender identity, so we can better understand impacts across the community.
    • Advocate for the reintroduction of gender-responsive budgeting and support increased budget and staffing levels for the Australian Public Service. The APS needs appropriate resources to implement gender-responsive budgeting, properly collect and analyse data, and consult with affected communities – all foundations for developing evidence-based and equitable policy responses.
  4. Clear away the distractions: Call up your MP and ask them to scrap the already discreditedFamily Law inquiry and the Religious Protections Bill – which if already enacted would have been disastrous for COVID responses.
  5. Stay informed: The Australian Human Rights Institute puts out a weekly newsletter on the human rights dimensions of COVID, while Human Rights Watch has put together an excellent checklist on human rights in COVID responses. Amnesty International Australia is keeping a close eye on domestic developments and you can also keep up to date through the Australian Human Rights Commission.

There are complex and potentially course altering debates brewing on the nature and structure of our social safety-nets, the relevance of capitalism, the nature of paid and unpaid labour, and our over-reliance on inequitable power structures.

We are more likely to get these discussions right if we take intersectional human rights as our starting point and invest in data and inclusive analysis. There’s no need to wait for snap back or its alternatives – we can push for these things right now.

poems, reflections and such

IWD – a poem

Following the election of Trump in 2016, thousands of post-its defending, celebrating and demanding human rights, especially for women, appeared in subway stations around Manhattan. I took this photo in the Union Square subway station –

8 March 2020 [first published via FaceBook]:

I’ve spent approximately 6 million years in unpaid overtime working on International Women’s Day, but this year, I’m taking the day off. I wrote a poem about it:

This International Women’s Day I would like to take off my gender
put it in the jumbly drawer with my jewellery
the library cards
and the watches waiting to be fixed
then sans gender I’d step out into the sunshine of being recognised as fully human.
I’d not second guess whether you see me like you – equal.
I’d dash off a million emails without policing my tone
go to a bar on my own
hang out in the free weights section of the gym.
I would not have to make the thousand tiny and big calculations about
whether you believe me
whether you take me seriously
whether you are dangerous
I would have other thoughts instead.
With my gender safe in the jumbly drawer, you wouldn’t play out your culture and your conflict and your religion on my body
I’d just be me
I’d just be human.

This International Women’s Day, I have a wish.
A wish for men to organise the International Women’s Day breakfasts and lunches and marches, and the corporate branding unanchored in responsibility.
I wish for men to get up early, and bleary eyed
eat the sad stale bagel unique to catered breakfasts.
I wish for men to write the speeches that by some unwritten law must start by
‘acknowledging how far we have come…’
as if we cannot ask for the rest of our rights unless we are polite about it
as if we should plot our status against other women
earlier women
distant women
but never against the men sitting next to us
as if it’s unladylike to be too thirsty for our rights.
This woman does not want to write that speech anymore
I wish the men would write it
I wish it shamed them.

This international women day, I have a request for men.
Believe us
see us
let us finish our sentences
take our advice
use our research
pay us
elect us.
Don’t murder us.
Don’t take our oppression as a personal slight
don’t ask for a cookie because you never raped anyone.

This international women’s day, I will not get up early to eat a sad stale bagel
instead, I will take a day off from my
restrained, angry, exhausted requests
to please please please treat me and my sisters like
fully human humans.
I’ll ignore the people, the institutions, the governments who have other priorities right now
easier things to talk about
religion to defend
uteruses to police
violence to ignore.
I’ll take the day off all that
and be back tomorrow.

articles Blog

COVID-19 is not gender neutral

First published 17 March 2020 in Broad Agenda

Policies and public health efforts are scrambling to catch up with the spread of COVID-19. Hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation will all contribute to containing the exponential rise in cases. But none of these measures address the gendered nature of pandemics and why the burden of the disease will largely be felt by women.



In the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 we can lose sight of what should be a basic health policy principle: pandemics, and their resulting economic shocks, affect men and women differently. Physical, cultural and social differences between men and women can influence how vulnerable they are (caring roles increase exposure), co-morbidity (women may be pregnant, men smoke more), and self-protection (women may have less decision-making power).

An article in the  The Lancet urged more research to understand the gendered impacts of COVID-19 in order to create “effective, equitable policies and interventions”. There are, however, some conclusions we can draw now, based on readily available information that shows that, yes, women are more vulnerable to the broader impacts of COVID-19.

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Amid the panic buying that is seeing supermarket shelves stripped of essential items, one thing is clear: stockpiling is not an option for the economically vulnerable. Stockpiling is expensive. ACOSS’s 2018 reportshows that in Australia, more women than men live below the poverty line. Statistics from the ABS last December, found women were the majority of those receiving long-term Newstart or Youth Allowance and the majority of those receiving parenting payments. Stock-piling is not only beyond the reach of the poorest, it also has the potential to make them more vulnerable as poverty makes it harder to search for supplies when they run out locally, or to pay more if there is a price surge.  Because of their economic vulnerability, women have reduced capacity to build up supplies against future shortages or quarantine.

Women are also over-represented in the industries both heavily reliant on casual workers and likely to be hit hard by an economic downturn.

Another area of concern is the impact on casual employees. There are more women than men working in casual employment without sick leave entitlements. Women are also over-represented in the industries both heavily reliant on casual workers and likely to be hit hard by an economic downturn. For instance, data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows women make up 57.7% of retail workers. But they make up majority of retail workers in fashion (84.2%), department stores (66.1%) and furnishings and homewares (71.3%) – all retail sectors already under strain. The combination of insecure employment and exposure to economic shock will hit women hard.


Women will bear the impact of closing universities, schools and childcare centers. Women are the majority of workers in these settings – 57.9% of university workers (particularly in non-management, professional, clerical and community service roles); 72% of those working in schools and a whopping 95.6% of childcare workers.

It’s not clear how or whether staff would be paid if there are shutdowns, or whether parents would continue paying fees. We should assume that in the event schools and childcare centres close, women will more likely have to change their work arrangements to care for out of school and out of care children, possibly taking a hit to their pay, or running down their own precious leave in the process.

The face of our healthcare response – and the risk and hard work inherent in that – is a female one.

The economic impacts, and potential for whole workplaces to be shut down are still playing out, but we already know the demand on the health workforce, and the risks that healthcare workers face. Here women are on the front line. Women make up 80% of hospital workers, including as the majority of professionals, technicians and labourers. Women are 83.9% of the general medical practice workforce, again as the majority of professionals, but also as the majority of clerical and administration staff. Furthermore, 77% of the pathology and diagnostic imaging workforce are women, and women make up  81.8% of residential aged care workers.

The face of our healthcare response  – and the risk and hard work inherent in that – is a female one. And this means that there is a tension between our need to ensure the health workforce is at peak capacity and the considerations around school closures because caring for kids and caring for the community comes back to women.

Women are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their economic insecurity, over representation in certain sectors of the economy, their caring responsibilities, and the feminisation of the education and healthcare sectors. We know this now – we don’t need to wait for research to make sure COVID-19 responses meet the needs of women.

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Better together apart: Connecting in the time of COVID-19

First published 31 March 2020 in Broad Agenda

Skype, Zoom, Google Duo, FaceTime, Messenger video, Blue Jeans, Slack – COVID-19 is forcing many of us to (very rapidly) upskill our videoconferencing abilities, knowledge and manners. But these new ways of connecting could also help change the unwritten rules about who we give voice to and set a higher bar for inclusion in meetings and conferences…

Among the indescribable heartache and distress of COVID-19, I spy a silver lining – we are being forced to think differently about how we connect with each other.

With international conferences and workshops cancelled, COVID-19 is forcing us to move to online and virtual alternatives, providing an opportunity to develop and model more inclusive meeting practices.

COVID-19 is forcing us to move to online and virtual alternatives, providing an opportunity to develop and model more inclusive meeting practices,

The move to online meetings significantly broadens the pool of possible participants. This point is not lost on the disability sector, with Australia’s Second Virtual Disability Conference – planned well before the COVID crisis – which is taking place today.

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As well as the reduced environmental impact, virtual meetings allow us to collaborate and share ideas without having to bid or fund raise for travel budgets and conference fees. We don’t need to take a week away from our other work to participate or push through jet lag. With virtual meetings, we don’t have to worry about whether we can access a venue or whether the food meets our health needs. We have quiet space to care for our mental health and there is a greater potential to combine participation with caring duties.

With virtual meetings, we don’t have to worry about whether we can access a venue of whether the food meets our health needs.

By engaging virtually, we create greater opportunity to engage with, and learn from, a far more diverse group of people. I hope this means that we see increased voices from the Pacific, often excluded from international meetings because of the prohibitive cost and long commute times involved in travelling from the Pacific region. I hope we also see increased engagement with civil society which is also constrained by small budgets.

But we also need to be careful not to assume that online meetings necessarily improve access. Participation still requires a decent internet connection, an appropriate device and somewhere quiet to engage – resources not available to all. We shouldn’t assume that virtual meetings can be easily combined with home schooling or other care responsibilities, or that virtual spaces are accessible for those with disabilities. We should engage early with participants to ensure meeting methods and times are accessible, and we should encourage  post-meeting feedback and lesson learning.

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Virtual formats are also an opportunity to interrogate what constitutes a ‘good’ meeting and to intentionally aim for inclusion. Tamerlaine Beasley argues that “online forums, if they are structured and managed effectively can be even more inclusive than offline”.  Alice Chautard and Dr Claire Hann have developed a guide for inclusive conferences which has lessons relevant for virtual meetings – including that different formats can change dynamics and support diversity.

Similarly, a new guide by the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centre notes that online meetings require a different mindset and scale differently. Apolitical’s excellent resourcefor online meetings advises querying why a meeting is necessary, investing in prior planning, and be deliberate in efforts to support inclusion. When things are not business as usual, we can stop doing the usual things that are no longer working. Critically, we can make deliberate decisions to break down old habits, including who we give voice to.

Those of us navigating this change are simultaneously out of our comfort zones, while also in our familiar spaces.

But what excites me most about virtual meetings is that this may be an opportunity to connect with each other as whole humans. Those of us navigating this change are simultaneously out of our comfort zones, while also in our familiar spaces. This combination of working together to figure out to how do things differently while wearing jeans and ugg boots appears to be creating a quite delightful air of generosity, humour and solidarity.

I’m wary of advice to make sure we strictly control the space behind us in a video call (though you should definitely mute and try to avoid having your camera pointing up your nose). I like seeing people in their specific spaces and I definitely want to meet your pets. Likewise, if you can see that cupboard behind me is reminiscent of Dr Who’s Tardis or if my dog comes in for a pat, or a teenager lollops past, you know a little bit more about me.

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That might mean we can be a little bit more connected. I believe that if we can be more connected on a human level, we can understand each other better and we can be more generous with each other – and in that generosity and understanding we can be more inclusive.

A genuine commitment to inclusion requires us to share power, to redesign the table we are inviting people to sit at, and to value diverse leadership, decision-making and collaboration approaches. This was necessary before COVID-19 changed the world, and it will be necessary after. I see this in-between time not as a pause, but as a reset and an opportunity to develop set new standards for inclusion for when we can once again meet face to face. And that’s exciting.