As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on across the United States and around the world, it seems every other week there is a new set of data sending the same dire message: Women in the workforce are having a disproportionately tough go.
Just last week, LeanIn.org’s annual study in partnership with consulting firm McKinsey and Co. found that one in four women are contemplating leaving their careers or downshifting their duties. It marked the first time in the report’s six-year history that women said they are seriously considering leaving the workforce in larger numbers than their male counterparts. It’s a phenomenon that Rachel Thomas, cofounder and CEO of LeanIn.org, attributed to the burnout caused by the new COVID-19-induced normal.
“These numbers set off alarm bells in our office,” Thomas said. “It can wipe out all of the progress we’ve made in a single year. That’s millions of women.”
But as study after study — coupled with a plethora of anecdotal evidence — points to the same consistent trend, what’s glaringly obvious is the dearth of company and public policies to address what is slowly becoming an epidemic of its own.
Pre-coronavirus, progressive companies — often led by women — evolved their HR strategies to offer so-called perks such as work from home, flex schedules, open vacation policies and extended parental leave — measures that, in theory, should also benefit men.
Now, as the U.S. wades through an historic pandemic, companies’ responses (if there is one at all) aren’t much different than what they had been doing all along. In fact, many firms are relying on the same insufficient polices that were barely supporting women when the world wasn’t knee deep in a health crisis.
Suffice it to say, right now, the mandate for better physical, emotional and mental resources is significantly higher: Pandemic-sized problems need to be attacked with pandemic-sized solutions.
“Obviously, now is a very important time to consider, and reconsider, policies and benefits as employees face a triple pandemic of COVID, economic [recession] and social injustice,” explained Kyle Rudy, partner at executive placement firm Kirk Palmer Associates. “And women are disproportionately impacted by all three, particularly in retail.”
For one, amid the current healthcare and macroeconomic challenges, remote work has become the norm for many who remain employed — and it’s hardly the perk it was cast as before. Add to that the fact that parents who work from home are also carrying the new responsibility of remote learning — a duty that data consistently shows is falling on women more than men.
“Even with the goal of reducing the exodus of women from the workforce, it’s important to position these policies as ways to support working families — not just women,” Rudy noted. “Labeling family care initiatives as ‘women’s’ reinforces the thinking that underlies the very issue we’re seeking to solve: The disproportionate burden on women to bear household and family care responsibilities while managing a career. Men should be included in these policies and encouraged to share equally in family care.”
While it isn’t the responsibility of any single corporation to address the struggles that women around the world are shouldering, company policies can have a trickle-down effect on thousands of households, the economy and broader society.
As Rudy put it: “If a man at one company increases his care at home, a wife’s company will benefit from a reduction on her side. In a perfect world, if we balance care expectations by gender and eventually all do it, then it will come around full circle.”
Similarly, Priya Rajendran, co-founder of S’moresUp, an app that uses behavioral and predictive analysis to help families organize their households, said it’s high time for companies to think beyond “working mom” policies and take a holistic view of the parenting picture.
“A major way I think this could be done is to start offering ‘family wellness’ benefits that focus on helping working moms manage their households and create much more balance around the gender divide of household tasks so that all of the work does not fall all on the mother,” Rajendran said. “After all, companies already offer health challenges like ‘10,000 steps,’ free Fitbits, apps like Calm for meditation, and weight management programs, because healthy employees are happy and productive. ‘Family wellness’ benefits can be added seamlessly into the HR mix.”
In a pandemic environment and beyond, forward-thinking HR strategies, Rudy noted, include specific policies around flexibility; assisting families with child care; giving paid and unpaid time off for family obligations; and supporting workers’ mental health needs.
And perhaps most importantly, such policies and practices should be informed by a recognition that one size does not fit all.
“People of color, and particularly Black women, are even more impacted by the current crises: They’re two times more likely to have a personal family loss due to COVID and they’re dealing with the stress of social injustice and the feeling of less support in corporate America,” said Rudy. “Add on inequality in pay, and they could have more trouble affording external care alternatives.”
Meanwhile, according to Bri Seeley, an entrepreneur coach and member of the Forbes Coaches Council, a broad failure across many organizations to provide adequate support for parents grappling with pandemic-born challenges, is driving some women to take the entrepreneurial route.
It’s important to note that in fashion and retail, it’s a particularly difficult time to break in as the industry grapples with seismic changes. Carly Cushnie and Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of Man Repeller, are among the women entrepreneurs in fashion who have recently shuttered their businesses due to pressures from the pandemic.
More generally, Seeley said she’s seeing women more willing than ever to incur the risks of starting a company.
“There have been a lot of women who have been doing the corporate thing because they had to for money, but they’ve had some kind of business they wanted to start,” Seeley explained. “And now that they’re able to be at home, they’re starting that business as a side hustle and beginning to build it up. And other women, who had a side hustle that exploded during the pandemic, have since been able to quit their jobs.”
The trend, said Seeley, is further bolstered by the growing number of women who are actually seeing their quality of life improve after shedding hectic daily commutes and the mental burdens of office politics.
“I’ve heard from a lot of women who cannot fathom the idea of going back to their office,” said Seeley. “And the pain and discomfort [associated with the] thought of having to return back to that environment is enough of a motivation for them to say ‘It’s time for me to start that business that I’ve always wanted to start.’”
For corporations though, the loss of a significant portion of their female workforce should compel them to find more effective corporate retention strategies — as well as build a culture that ensures those policies are enforced and embraced.
An abundance of data has shown women-led companies consistently outperform on key metrics. A popular study by Boston-based trading firm Quantopian — which compared returns from Fortune 1000 companies with those of the S&P 500 firms — found that, between 2002 and 2014, companies with women at the helm saw returns that were 226% higher.
Now diversity and inclusion continue to rise in relevance for corporations, the dramatic exodus of women deals a huge blow to D&I efforts. It’s now more important than ever that companies are steadfast in their communications and utilize tools such as surveys and town halls to ensure their efforts are actually working.
“There will be quantifiable cost with many of these programs. Yet those must be weighed against the non-quantifiable costs of unplanned absenteeism, vacancies, deadlines missed, recruiting [and] training expenses and time — as well as perception of co-workers and candidates of your higher turnover,” said Rudy. “And most importantly, companies must weigh the impact of a decrease in gender diversity throughout the organization, which has been proven to negatively impact revenues and profits.”