A Call to Action: Regaining Ground Lost to the Pandemic’s Gender Effect
Women in the US, especially women of color, have left the workplace or been laid off in unprecedented numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic, jeopardizing their financial security and reversing the gender diversity and equity gains of recent decades. By January 2019 women had achieved their highest level of participation in the workforce in US history. Today only 56% of US women are working for pay, the lowest level since 1986. LinkedIn data further shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles during the pandemic, reversing progress across multiple industries. A 2021 World Economic Forum report warns that the pandemic has set women’s gender parity back a generation.
But there is opportunity in crisis. Organizations can regain ground, attract and retain female employees, and support their advancement to leadership by adapting their workplaces to be more flexible and inclusive in the post-pandemic era. They can create an organizational culture that supports all employees and provides equal opportunities for women to achieve their potential.
What are the best practices for achieving this?
1. Mentor women
Along with invading our personal space at home, working remotely has created a sense of isolation and separation from normal interactions and networking opportunities. Mentoring programs like those of TalentNomics pair early- to mid- career women with senior women who share their experience, help to build
connections and networks, and provide guidance on their journey to leadership. Mentoring creates and strengthens emotional as well as professional connections, which is especially important during remote work, which will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic.
2. Utilize remote work to attract and retain women in the workforce
Remote work allows employers to diversify their hiring by removing physical location as a job requirement. Remote work can create opportunities for women – particularly mothers, caregivers, and those with disabilities – who will be able to take on or move into jobs that previously would have required them to relocate, travel extensively, or manage a long commute. Organizations should seize this opportunity.
3. Communicate resources and de-stigmatize flexibility
Organizations should communicate the resources they offer, particularly paid sick leave and family leave programs. For example, a recent McKinsey study on Women in the Workplace reports that while most companies offer mental health counselling, parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counselling, only about half of employees know that these benefits are available. Leaders should encourage employees to access flexible leave programs and mental health resources without stigma.
4. Recognize and minimize gender bias
COVID-19 has amplified the implicit biases women face, such as higher performance expectations, harsher judgment for mistakes, and the perception that their attention is split between work and home. The increased demands of caregiving during the pandemic, sometimes manifested as views of children in the background during video calls, can lead managers to assume, consciously or unconsciously, that women are less committed to their jobs than their male counterparts and employees without children. Organizations need to ensure that managers and all employees are aware of these potential biases in order to counteract their impact, especially during the disconnected nature of remote work.
5. Recognize and equitize caretaking
No conversation about women’s equality in the workplace is complete without a discussion of affordable childcare. For US dual-earner families, pre-kindergarten childcare is already the most expensive part of monthly budgets, even ahead of housing. When schools and childcare facilities closed during the pandemic, mothers, who on average earn less than fathers, became the default childcare provider. Organizations can help fill the gap created by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women without access to affordable childcare by making work flexible for fathers and mothers alike, with equal access to paid leave for anyone with caretaking duties.
Now is the time
In recent years, organizations had grown the ranks of women leaders and those being readied for leadership and they can continue to build upon, rather than lose, this foundation. If organizations rise to meet the challenges working women face, they can protect hard-won gains in gender diversity and create more equitable workplaces in the post-pandemic era. The World Economic Forum report concludes that today:
“Leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to build more resilient and gender-equal economies by investing in inclusive workplaces, creating more equitable care systems, advancing women’s rise to leadership positions, applying a gender lens to reskilling and redeployment and embedding gender parity into the future of work.”
Now is the time for organizations to take the lead in creating a more equitable future.