The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception – that’s the bleak assertion of UN Women (the United Nations entity charged with championing gender equality).
For countless women in economies of every size, along with losing income, the unpaid care and domestic work burden has exploded. In January of this year, 275,000 women left the U.S workforce (compared with 70,000 men).
COVID-19 is rolling back on women’s economic gains of past decades – and, let’s be real, there was still a long way to go to reach anything like parity – and the consequences will outlast the pandemic. It could take years for women in the workforce to recover and we don’t have years.
If ever there was a time for organizations to double down on their support for women in the workforce it is undoubtedly now. What is good for gender equality is also good for the economy and society. McKinsey estimates that: ‘taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario [with no action taken]’.
McKinsey’s research also found: ‘companies now pulling back on diversity and inclusion may be placing themselves at a disadvantage in terms of resilience and the ability to recover from the current crisis; they could be limiting their access to talent, diverse skills, leadership styles, and perspectives’.
From my career experience and in working alongside other professional women, the following suggestions contribute to lower attrition of women in the workplace:
- Work/Life Blend – while parenting is not solely a woman’s responsibility, the primary reason women leave the workforce is parenting and lack of work/life balance. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, where societal and personal pressures have created a home dynamic for many working moms that blurred the two worlds. Having to choose between assisting children with online school or participating in a team Zoom call, many, many women found themselves facing impossible choices. Institute family-friendly policies that recognize and account for these additional burdens.
- Flexibility – often but not exclusively related to family demands as noted above, flexible work schedules are a major cause of attrition among women and can be alleviated by creating a workplace culture where the focus is less on where and when work is done more on the outcomes and results achieved. There are productivity gains to be had for organizations that empower employees to manage their own time and embrace hybrid workplace arrangements.
- Pay parity – address how women are paid in your organization. While it’s valuable for employees to champion their own advancement, including how they are compensated, organizations that value their talent don’t turn remuneration into a battlefield. Steps you can take include increased pay transparency and reporting on gender gaps, addressing discrimation and bias in the recruitment process and committing to a company-wide remuneration policy. (Sidenote: We have just marked Women’s Equal Pay Day (3/24/21) – the day into the year on which it takes for women on average to earn what men did in the previous 12 months.)
- Discrimination – deal with it head on. When issues around bias, discrimination and prejudice remain unresolved, or that misogynist in your ranks is never sanctioned and coached, a toxic culture ensues. Instead of denying the emotional and psychological effects that sexual discrimination has in the workplace, aggressively work to rid your company of it. More than a hashtag, the #MeToo movement is a commitment to stand up to abuse every day.
These actions are not just pandemic recovery efforts – this is an opportunity to address existing factors that contributed to the crisis and make long term improvements to the way your organization is structured to support and retain women. This was, after all, a pre-existing condition.