Spokane Journal of Business

Corporate America is at crossroads to retain women

Pandemic pressures now threaten to reverse gains in female representation

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Though employees everywhere report a host of pandemic-related challenges, women disproportionately are struggling, reporting less optimism about career prospects, decreased mental health, and increased stress and burnout. 

One in four women are currently considering “downshifting” or leaving the workforce altogether, according to a recent report on Women in the Workplace from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, the nonprofit devoted to women and the professional workplace.

According to Pew Research data, unemployment climbed more sharply among women than men following the pandemic. Though workers in low-wage jobs experienced the greatest unemployment rates, many women in various sectors have downshifted their careers, which could potentially have a long-term ripple effect with a devastating reversal of gains made in representation in female leadership roles. This reversal could have both social and financial impacts, as a growing body of data suggests that when companies have gender diversity in leadership, they outperform those who do not.

A recent survey published in the Harvard Business Review found that women ranked higher, compared to men, in 12 out of 16 core leadership competencies, including collaboration, driving results, and self-development. Another study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior suggests that women-led teams tend to be more collaborative, communicative, and open to learning. Research from McKinsey & Co. also indicates that when women are well represented at the top, companies are 50% more likely to outperform their peers.

Results from the recent Women in the Workplace study, which surveyed 5,000 working women across 10 countries, indicate that this may be a critical moment for employers to act to prevent a host of short- and long-term consequences of gender equity impacts related to the pandemic.

While nearly 80% of the women indicate that their workload at work has increased because of the pandemic, most surveyed women also reported having disproportionate responsibility for home and child care duties. The pandemic has caused many working mothers to either willingly leave jobs or be forced out in staggering numbers, with one of the most cited reasons being the heavier burden placed on women to attend to unpaid domestic household chores and childcare, which during the pandemic disrupts parents’ ability to actively work for pay.

Overall, 57% of women – nearly 60% for women of color – plan to leave their workplaces in the next two years or less, while 21% say they will leave sooner than that, all citing lack of work-life balance.

Sporadic and irregular presence in the workforce can have long-term impacts on promotion, advancement, and earnings, which can all threaten efforts to narrow the workplace gender gap in pay, representation, and leadership.

Though women are reporting an increase in need for employer support to reduce rates of attrition, many describe a perceived lack of support from employers to counter the impacts of the increased demands. Surveyed women identified the continuance of a broad range of noninclusive behaviors at work without direct support from managers or employers. 

Impacts from the pandemic have created a situation in which companies risk losing women, including women at all levels of management. However, employers also have a critical “reset” opportunity in which they can build a better workplace. If companies act now to build a more equal and supportive workplace, they may prevent millions of women from leaving their jobs or downshifting their careers.

Data from the Women in the Workplace study identified six key areas in which companies should focus their efforts to retain female employees and prevent long-term representation issues.

•Make work more sustainable. Examine expectations of productivity and performance set prior to the pandemic to assess if they are still reasonable.

•Reset norms around flexibility. With so many working remotely, blurring lines between work and home, many are left feeling “always on.” Create and articulate boundaries around expectations of answering emails and phone calls. Model and create norms around using flexibility support options. Having policies that articulate flexibility are important, but employees may be afraid to take advantage of options if they believe they will be negatively perceived.

•Take a close look at performance reviews. Reexamine performance review expectations to assess if the criteria are still attainable during the pandemic. Aligning criteria with appropriate revised expectations and articulating those changes may reduce burnout and anxiety, which may ultimately reduce attrition.

•Take steps to minimize gender bias. Consider investing in bias training and creating an equity plan. Consider creating a formal statement about a firm commitment to promoting equity in the workplace. Create targets for gender representation at the senior level. Create a culture where women feel able to raise concerns without fear of career penalty.

•Adjust policies and programs to better support employees. Make sure that employees are aware of the full range of benefits available to them. Many employees may not know about mental health counseling, parenting resources, or bereavement counseling that is available. Consider examining benefit packages to assess whether they are meeting the needs of employees.

•Strengthen employee communication. Share regular updates about decisions that impact the lives of employees. Many are working remotely or in a hybrid model, which can limit face-to-face interaction and can hinder good communication. Regular, open communication can build trust and make employees feel more valued.

Robin Pickering is the Women and Gender Studies program director and associate professor at Whitworth University.

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