On an early morning coaching call, I took a few extra minutes to check in on a female leader before launching into our meeting. I knew this was a high potential leader that the company wanted to retain and grow. I also knew some of the challenges she was currently facing. Sure enough, her morning had been rough. With two small children (both under age 8) and a dual career marriage, she needed just a few moments to talk. Juggling work, husband, kids, homeschooling, pandemic restrictions, and older extended family had definitely taken its toll, but as with many women, it can go unsaid if you don’t slow down enough to ask.
Women in Leadership
Take a minute and think of the leader who best handled the recent COVID-19 crisis. If you’ve been following the international news in recent months, chances are excellent you thought of New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden. Yes, she has the advantage of governing a small, island nation, but still she’s managed to keep her country nearly Covid-free and appear compassionate while doing it. There are several other contenders for the honor — the leaders of Taiwan, Korea, Finland, and Germany, for example. What do a striking number of them have in common? Many are women.
So, what does that have to do with my coaching call? This article is all about making the case, dear readers, to pay attention to what is currently going on with women in your organizations. Specifically, with women at the top. What happens if those women aren’t there? The financial consequences could be significant. Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented in leadership. Beyond that, senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs; and to champion racial and gender diversity. They are viewed as more trustworthy than their male counterparts and outperform men in 11 out of 12 emotional intelligence measures. When given the opportunity, they are significantly more likely to mentor other women and are more inclined to collaborate cross-functionally than men. Now that being said, men have their distinct strengths as well (for example, they are perceived as more directive and decisive), but this just happens to be a compilation of the review of recent, significant bodies of research on women to highlight what they bring to the table.
Since this is Women’s History Month, I wanted to give you a brief history leading up to this time for women in the workforce. It also serves as an update on what is currently going on in the world of work with the pandemic taking such a hit on women in particular. Finally, I want to lay out a few pragmatic actions you can take to help encourage and support them. As you read this, remember these are the women that work by your side, day in and day out. They are the women you see out on the frontline in your communities and the women sitting next to you at the dinner table at night.
Short History Lesson
In the early 20th century, most women in the United States did not work outside the home, and those who did were primarily young and unmarried. In that era, just 20 percent of all women were “gainful workers,” as the Census Bureau then categorized labor force participation outside the home, and only 5 percent of those married were categorized as such. The occupational choices of those young women who did work were severely limited. Most women lacked significant education—and women with little education mostly worked in factories as piece or domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe. Educated women were scarce. Only about .5% of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in an institution of higher education.
Between the 1930s (shortly after gaining the right to vote in 1920) and into the mid-1970s, women’s participation in the economy rose significantly, with the gains primarily owing to an increase in work among married women. By 1970, 50 percent of single women and 40 percent of married women were participating in the labor force. Several factors contributed to this rise. First, with the advent of mass high school education, graduation rates rose substantially. More legal standards were set over this time protecting women in the workforce from discrimination. At the same time, new technologies contributed to an increased demand for clerical workers, and these jobs were increasingly taken on by women. Moreover, because these jobs tended to be cleaner and safer, the stigma attached to work for a married woman diminished. That said, early in that period, most women still expected to have short careers and were still largely viewed as secondary earners whose husbands’ careers came first.
By the early 1990s, the labor force participation rate of prime working-age women—those between the ages of 25 and 54—reached just over 74 percent, compared with roughly 93 percent for prime working-age men. By then, the share of women going into the traditional fields of teaching, nursing, social work, and clerical work declined, and more women were becoming doctors, lawyers, managers, and professors. As women increased their education and joined industries and occupations formerly dominated by men, the gap in earnings between women and men began to close.
At the beginning of 2020, women were still being paid less than men; however, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. This was most pronounced in senior management: between January 2015 and January 2020, representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent. Women remained dramatically underrepresented—particularly women of color—but the numbers were slowly improving. However, that was prior to the events of 2020 which turned workplaces upside down.
Under the highly challenging circumstances of the pandemic, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue.
Women, in particular, have been negatively impacted. They are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis (especially due to the hard hit in the service and hospitality sector), stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. As a result of these dynamics, more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Note here that there are about 75 million women in the workforce at this time. Let that number sink in. This is an emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.
However, the current COVID-19 crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term. Here are 5 pragmatic approaches to consider in your workplace:
1) Make Work More Sustainable
A sustainable pace of work is essential to helping mothers, senior-level women, and all employees facing burnout get through this crisis. To make this happen, leaders and managers need to look at productivity and performance expectations set before COVID-19 and ask if they’re still realistic. They may also need to reset goals, narrow project scopes, or keep the same goals and extend deadlines. Currently, only a small number of managers are doing this.
Additionally, companies have found creative ways to give employees extra time off. For example, we’ve heard from companies that have offered “COVID-19 days” to give parents a chance to prepare for the new school year. We’ve also heard from companies that close for a few Fridays each quarter to give everyone an opportunity to recharge. Getting creative in ways that help bolster these employees is essential. With the data indicating we are all working approximately 3 extra hours a day, while many can continue to work these long hours, over the course of time production will be hindered by burnout and fatigue.
2) Encourage Women to Use the Power of the Pack
It is essential that we help women find their “pack” and encourage tapping into them anytime they have an emergency, need honest advice, or want a key business introduction. When it comes to building relationships, making the point that people often get what they give is imperative.
Pam Kaufman, President of Viacom/Nickelodeon Global Consumer Products, shares this advice that she once received: “Richelle Parham, the former CMO for eBay who sits on the board for Best Buy, once asked me, ‘Who is on your team?’ She didn’t mean people I managed, but who I had in my professional life that served as my support network. Taking Richelle’s advice, I began building my squad – people I could bounce ideas off of, go to for advice, pick me up when I needed a boost. Today, my squad is so important for my career and my mental well-being. Not only do we support each other, but we act as connectors to people and opportunities. Whenever one of us comes across a great opportunity, we immediately send it to each other. It is amazing to be part of a group of women who want you to be your very best and actively help you to succeed.” This type of support, woman to woman, has played out in other organizations with shared workloads, ensuring diversity on project teams and even simply highlighting other women’s contribution to the team in a group setting.
3) Reset Norms Around Flexibility
COVID-19 has made it much harder for employees to draw clear lines between work and home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” Companies should look for ways to reestablish work–life boundaries. For many, this may require setting new work norms—for example, establishing set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for responding to emails outside typical business hours, and improving communication about work hours and availability within teams.
Companies can also encourage employees to set their own boundaries and take full advantage of flexible work options. Even when these options are available, some employees worry there may be a stigma attached to using them. To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will be measured based on results—not when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility—57 percent of employees say senior leaders at their company have done this during COVID-19. Better yet, leaders can model flexibility in their own lives, which sends a message to employees that it’s OK to take advantage of flexible work options. When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, the loyalty gained is priceless.
4) Watch the Language in the Culture
What people say is not just words. The words spoken within a culture can have real-life implications for employees and the organization as a whole. Language in performance evaluations can tell us what is valued and what is not in an organization. Employees also know what is valued and make decisions about how well they fit in an organization and their potential to advance. Biases could show up in new ways during COVID-19: for example, when colleagues see young children playing in the background on video calls; when coworkers assume, consciously or unconsciously, that women are less committed to their jobs; or when managers are evaluating women in performance reviews. Given that managers and team members now have less visibility into their colleagues’ day-to-day work, they may be more likely to make assumptions about their performance, and this increases the chance of bias creeping in.
Studies have found differences in formal feedback for men and women. Some studies have shown that women are more likely to receive vague feedback that is not connected to objectives or business outcomes. This is a disadvantage when women are competing for job opportunities, promotions, and rewards, and in terms of women’s professional growth and identity. In addition, women leaders often get conflicting feedback — told on the one hand that they’re too bossy or aggressive, but on the other that they should be more confident and assertive. A huge body of work has found that when women are collaborative and communal, they are not perceived as competent; but when they emphasize their competence, they’re seen as cold and unlikable, in a classic “double bind.”
5) Adjust Policies and Programs to Better Support Working Parents
Many companies have extended policies and programs to support employees during COVID-19, from offering more paid time off to providing resources for homeschooling. Companies should make sure employees are aware of the full range of benefits available to them. Right now, there’s a significant gap between what companies offer and what employees are aware of. For instance, almost all companies offer mental-health counseling, but only about half of employees know this benefit is available. The same trend holds for other valuable programs such as parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counseling.
The choices companies make could shape the workplace for women for decades to come—for better or for worse. There are two paths ahead. If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent the way they work so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone. If not, the consequences could seriously harm women, business, and the economy as a whole. This moment requires long-term thinking, creativity, strong leadership, and a laser focus on the value of women to their organizations.