From the Experts: Overcoming Challenges for Women in the Workplace

Women have faced many issues in the workplace that are gender-specific. Issues such as pay-inequality, childcare, maternity leave, and so on. It has been two years since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and since then, things have only escalated. Women have been on the frontlines of virtual schooling, and are even more so the default caregivers for their families. The great resignation has led to millions of women leaving the workforce altogether, and though some are returning, many are not.

The landscape for women in the workplace could be forever changed, and the solutions may not be so simple. We turned to our team of experts to find out what specific stressors they are seeing among women in particular, and what they think leadership within organizations can do to better support women in the workplace and reverse these trends.

 

Answers From the Experts:

 

Lyn Turknett, Co-founder and Co-chair

Since the pandemic began, have you noticed a difference in the specific stressors or issues that women are facing?

I have certainly noticed a difference in stressors for women, especially for women with children. I do want to say, though, that ALL parents of children, especially children under ten, have struggled. For families with very young children the fact that all childcare centers were closed early in the pandemic was a huge issue, and it made working from home very difficult for men and women.

It’s not news, though, that the burden of child care in the U.S. still falls to women, so women seemed to be under more pressure during that time. All single parents were hit hard. The challenge remains for parents of very young children since young children are not eligible for vaccines and childcare centers close when there is a Covid-19 outbreak.

The challenges of supervising older children who were suddenly at home and expected to do schoolwork virtually fell more on the shoulders of women. I don’t think we even recognize yet how hard having adequate bandwidth, computer equipment, and workspace was, and that’s before even considering how difficult it is for many parents to supervise schoolwork.

Women tend to take on more of the burden in caring for ailing family members as well, and many took on the responsibility for family members who were ill or for children of family members. I also just read that 140,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic.

 

How can leadership and workforce development initiatives address these challenges?

I don’t know that organizations can address these societal, cultural issues directly, but there has been fallout that organizations likely can address. Women have been a bigger part of the “great resignation,” with 3.5 million women leaving the workforce since the pandemic began. If they were in a two-career household, women were more likely to quit. And we are likely to find that women were more subject to the “great rethinking” – is this job worth it? Is this how I really must live? We know from McKinsey’s latest “Women in the Workplace” study that many currently employed women are rethinking right now. Now 42% of women report burnout; that figure was 32% before the pandemic. And one in three are thinking of leaving; that figure was one in four before the pandemic.

Flexibility will be key to getting women back and keeping them. Research by WerkLabs finds that most women with children in office jobs don’t want to be in the office more than two days per week. And the same research finds that moms see their opportunities to advance as 51% worse than dads.

  • It’s clearer and clearer that psychological safety is critical for high performance, for performance on diverse teams, and for retention and innovation. Make sure every leader is required to create and maintain a team environment where everyone feels safe and heard.
  • Talk to women about advancement. Make career paths clear. Make sure they aren’t left out of casual development conversations that occur with men.
  • I still see office housework – taking notes, sending agendas, doing the nitty-gritty follow up – being assigned more often to women. We all need to pay attention.
  • Rethink flexibility. Women who are able to have a higher level of flexibility while their children are younger will likely be ready for more “on the ground” roles later. Otherwise they will find 100% remote roles or strike out on their own.

Another caveat – research also shows that women are 60% more nurturing than men in the workplace, and are playing an out-sized role in keeping remote workers feeling connected and appreciated. Who will do that when there are fewer women in the workplace. Will men step up?

 

 

Michael Sessions, Ph.D., Senior Consultant

Since the pandemic began, have you noticed a difference in the specific stressors or issues that women are facing?

The biggest impact that I have seen that has disproportionately fallen on women has been the added responsibility for child care/education. While men have come along way in the last 20 years, the default position continues to be that women are the primary caregivers at home. Burning the candle at both ends has been extraordinarily difficult and exhausting for many women.

 

How can leadership and workforce development initiatives address these challenges?

I believe the solution is far more systemic than specific to any particular circumstance. The Need as a society, corporations included, to address the challenge of putting resources towards helping families as they currently exist is ongoing and growing. Childcare and flexible schedules are an obvious beginning. The larger issue is to recognize that the traditional model for families no longer exists to any great degree. All families need more help than they have available in most cases. We have to begin to acknowledge that the workforce will be strengthened by reducing the stress of managing life at home.

 

 

Cindy Cheatham, Senior Consultant

Since the pandemic began, have you noticed a difference in the specific stressors or issues that women are facing?

Women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID for many reasons, primarily because of the increased burdens women generally take as caregivers of children or seniors.. The pandemic made it more difficult to juggle career and caregiving as school became virtual and even now as many kids have experienced learning loss or increased mental health issues associated with the pandemic.

For those balancing child care and work, mothers are three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and child-care duties during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a 2020 report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company. As caregivers during a difficult time when many are reluctant to send young unvaccinated kids to daycare and elders are at higher covid-19 health risks, women have had less time for self-care. As a result, the mental and sometimes physical health of women has been affected. According to new research titled, “Working from Home During COVID-19: A Study of Interruption Landscape,’’ women also reported more interruptions than men did prior to the pandemic, but this difference has only increased. The spike in family-related disruptions while working from home during the pandemic was expected, but women noted more frequent interruptions from co-workers and supervisors even while working from home.

Women, according to the Lean in and McKinsey & Company, study are also more likely to worry about their opportunities for promotion if they work remotely while men go into the office. Yet, many have a higher need and benefit to manage so many responsibilities from working from home. It is not an even playing field of responsibilities. Record numbers of women dropped out of the workforce altogether due to these difficult issues and the challenges in managing all the harder than usual responsibilities.

 

How can leadership and workforce development initiatives address these challenges?

The number one way that companies can support women during this pandemic is to show genuine concern and empathy for their employees, recognizing the extra challenges that this pandemic has added. This is always good corporate policy but more important than ever as we are in the midst of the “Great Resignation.”

Companies can help reduce or ease the burden of home interruptions that are disproportionate to women by helping them find a suitable home office, a more quiet, dedicated space within their homes. This is not always possible however due to home constraints or the need to supervise younger children.

Companies can also help reduce the interruptions as women tend to be more responsive to emails than men by asking colleagues to be sensitive to how their communication can interrupt, asking employees to schedule calls or to avoid unnecessary emails that conscientious women may be more likely to answer that do not have urgency.
Companies can also work hard to create and implement a performance model that fairly defines and evaluates performances, regardless of time spent in the office.

Of course family friendly corporate policies to reimburse for certain child care needs or to facilitate affordable childcare, to allow flexible work hours and to provide other family friendly benefits still are critical. Corporations are also increasingly offering elder care resources and referral services.

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