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You keep losing your women leaders. Don’t blame the pandemic!

Meet Jackie, a HR Director for the last 5 years. One week her idea is dismissed while a male Director gets credit for the same idea during a leadership meeting, and she works late for 2 nights preparing reports for her VP, just to get a text on the weekend asking her to finish his presentation too so he can take his sons to a basketball game. Her own son frantically asks for help with homework while her husband is napping. As she tries to go to sleep around midnight, after finishing the VP’s presentation. She is feeling burned out and frustrated even though she loves her job and career.

Jackie’s story is a compilation of stories shared by real women about working life pre-pandemic. The experience of  women who stayed in the workforce during the pandemic has become even more demanding with them now taking on more of the workload and schoolwork at home, while working more hours remotely. Of the workers who did leave their jobs during the pandemic, eighty percent were women, this includes voluntary attrition due to childcare or personal health reasons. Of those remaining at their jobs 1 in 4 are considering reducing work hours, moving to less demanding jobs, taking leaves, or leaving the workforce all together due to burnout.

These statistics, while alarming, are not all that surprising because recent gains for women in the workforce were precarious to begin with, as they continue to contend with non-inclusionary policies and low representation in management type positions – obstacles that make career development and progression more challenging for women than their male counterparts. The track just not equitably support everyone’s needs. 

The loss of women in the workforce the past 18 months is very troublesome and has highlighted the foundational infrastructure challenges encouraging women to leave the workforce. 

Multiple studies have shown that teams with a significant female executive presence drive higher revenues, increase client satisfaction rates and support better performance overall. The economic recovery, and your company’s future, depend on women returning to the workforce in even larger numbers than pre-pandemic. This is a multifaceted and intersectional challenge, just like the population of women you need to represent. Organizations started making waves in gender equity in the workforce and the lessons learned must be built on.

Even in 2019 the gender and race gap in management positions were startling high, with women making up over 51% of the workforce.

Four Key Areas to Address

Foster and reinforce an inclusive culture

Design, establish, and continuously reinforce the behavioral expectations of your people. Support those behaviors with leadership practices where modeling those behaviors is an imperative. Set expectations that the organization respects and appreciates the intersectionality of employees’ lives. A culture of diversity, equity and inclusion is established not only through policies, but with the actions and behaviors of the leaders. What can you do?

  • Listen authentically: ask about their priorities and concerns about existing inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Report on the results and what the company will do to address those concerns.
  • Hold personal time sacred and show that you benefit from taking some for yourself: Start with leaders blocking off their calendars for personal time. Avoid asking employees for commitments that interfere with evenings and weekends. 
  • Model behavior: Leaders, especially male need to be mindful of how they talk about their commitments. They need to share what in their personal life is important to them. Make it okay to say I treasure Wednesday evenings watching movies with my kids, so I won’t be able to look over the report tonight.
  • Recognize and celebrate employee’s achievements in life, not just work. Create space for employees to share personal goals, joys and successes. For example, every Friday, have employees share good news from their life.

Start with Trust

A study by the San Francisco Federal Reserve found that the impact of the pandemic was much less pronounced on women who had flexible work schedules than those that had strict schedules, whether they worked from home or not. Flexibility starts with trust. You chose the best people for your company and teams – trust them. 

  • If specific shifts aren’t needed, then let employees complete their work and attend meetings without set schedules. 
  • Let people change up their schedule, share schedules, or work alternate times when needed. 

You might wonder, how can this be done? Well, you can learn from Iceland. An experiment there found workers reducing their schedule to 4 days a week and 36 hours a week led to dramatic increases in worker wellbeing and improved productivity. Challenge yourself and your company to be creative and flexible!

Make Growth and Advancement a Priority

Even before the pandemic, women only made up 21% of the senior leadership positions. For every 100 men promoted, the break down for women is:

  • 85 White women
  • 71 Latinx women
  • 58 Black women

The gap in advancement starts with recruiting women, especially BIPOC women. Then pay attention to women dropping off at the first management level and extending through all levels in your company. Companies don’t have a glass ceiling as much as a leaky pipeline. Advancement of women, especially BIPOC women, has to be intentional – reducing the barriers of entry enough so that women do not fall off the race. 

  • Build out your leadership pipeline. Examine your promotions over the last few years and identify who wasn’t promoted, who didn’t even apply, and why. 
  • A robust leadership development program that intentionally includes future female leaders will reap great benefits. A formal mentorship program that targets underrepresented populations is a must. 
  • Focus performance reviews on the growth and development the employee is seeking, not just their performance over the last quarter. 

The most important thing though is to take a hard look at unconscious bias in your leadership team and employees. Studies by McKinsey find that women exhibit more leadership traits, but surveys indicate that men’s perceptions are implicitly biased towards minimizing women’s leadership capabilities .

Care About Dependent Care

The pandemic laid bare the decades old issue of our economy and women’s opportunities being dependent on access to good childcare. Women are 3 times more likely than men to not work due to childcare demands. For Black families, even pre-pandemic, childcare took more than ½ of their income. While you may not be able to change deep-seeded societal structures, here are some things you can do within your organization to mitigate some of these challenges: ·        

  • Question the nature of roles in your company and whether they really need to be done at an office. Offer work from home opportunities to lessen the amount of time families have to use childcare
  • Offer greater dependent care benefits to offset costs
  • Adopt leave policies that are better than your state minimumsLook back at the section on starting with trust – be flexible

Organizations that invest in the recruitment, retention and development of women and more specifically BIPOC women are going to win in the market. Don’t get blindsided. 

Will you and your company step up?

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