Closing The Covid-19 Workplace Gender Gap: Three Actionable Solutions For SMBs
1 July 2021
Two point three million: that’s the number of women who have left the workforce over the last year, resulting in a labor participation rate that hasn’t been this low since 1988. In December alone, women accounted for over 86% of all jobs lost. One in four women is considering downshifting her career or leaving the workforce due to the pandemic.
The pandemic is amplifying biases women have faced in the workplace for years, including higher performance standards, narrower pathways to promotion and penalties for taking advantage of flexible work options. Women are also up against the “gender ambition gap,” an erroneous belief that advancement opportunities exist, but women just aren’t taking advantage of them. Suppose a woman doesn’t become a director at her company or partner at her law firm. The ambition gap posits this lack of advancement is because she chose not to pursue this goal — not because of any internal barriers.
A 2017 BCG report firmly dispels this myth and finds that advancement differences may come down to a company’s culture norms toward gender diversity: “Ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured—or damaged—by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time.” That’s never been truer than today when Covid-19 has turned our professional and personal lives upside for the last year.
Corporate America is at a crossroads. If employers continue on their current path, we could lose years of gender diversity and inclusivity progress. Or we could use this moment as a catalyst to embrace long-needed changes that build a more equitable workplace.
I’m a strong supporter of the latter, especially given the renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts over the last year. Addressing the challenges that women with children and caregiver commitments face is a critical component to a comprehensive DEI approach. Here’s how to get started:
1. Listen first.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Having a conversation between leadership and employees is essential to understanding an employee’s daily experience. What is it like to be a working mother also managing her child’s remote schooling? How are these challenges magnified for the single parents and women of color who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic?
Skip-level meetings create an opportunity to explore what employees really think about your company’s current policies. Are flex work policies available but rarely used? If so, is there a cultural barrier at your company that subtly discourages their use? Finally, consider the best options for gathering employee feedback. Anonymous surveys may be a better option for employees who fear that candidly speaking could adversely impact their workplace experience or promotion potential.
2. Lead with empathy.
From Zoom fatigue to ongoing pandemic uncertainty, burnout is universal, but women at your company may be experiencing it more acutely. In most households, women continue to take primary responsibility for child care, schooling and household management, doing nearly three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. Yet, women are also more likely to be judged as “unfocused” or “uncommitted” when a child appears in the background on a Zoom call — a double standard often fueled by unconscious bias.
Leading with empathy means adjusting employee performance benchmarks to better align with what’s feasible in this moment. It also means bringing greater awareness to how unconscious biases impact our daily perceptions of our co-workers. With teams working remotely, we have limited insight into what’s truly happening in our employees’ lives. But keeping this top of mind can be tricky. Small changes, like email-protected nights and weekends, can help employees rebuild the work-life boundaries that the pandemic has eroded.
3. Adjust policies.
In the early days of the pandemic, nearly every company issued statements that the “health and safety of their employees was their top priority.” A year later, has your company turned these words into meaningful action? A good place to start is your current family and medical leave policy. Even before the pandemic, research found that family PTO can nearly close the gap in workforce participation between women with young children and women without minor children. Now, these policies matter more than ever.
Your policy review is about more than just ensuring your business is in alignment with other companies in the marketplace. It’s also about creating a culture where utilizing these policies is the expectation, not the exception. To this end, small changes can have a big impact. For example, parents at your company may already be leaning on one another for support as they navigate remote schooling and workday challenges. Consider formalizing these connections with an ERG open to all employees with children. Fostering a culture where employees are empowered to bring their whole selves to work builds a more inclusive company and equitable workplace for everyone.
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple check-in. At a time when we’re all feeling disconnected, asking someone, “How are you doing?” — and then genuinely listening to what they have to say — is incredibly powerful. These conversations alone won’t close the Covid-19 gender gap. Still, they can help build a more inclusive company culture of empathy, understanding and support, the three key ingredients that help everyone succeed at work.
Article Published By: Forbes, “Closing The Covid-19 Workplace Gender Gap: Three Actionable Solutions For SMBs“