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Women & Power

Five ways the pandemic can ultimately make the workplace better for women

Women are leaving the workforce in droves. Rewriting the rules for equity now would be good for everyone, including businesses.

Shonagh Rae/for The Boston Globe

The She-cession is upon us, and a generation of working women may be left behind.

Female employees have accounted for the majority of net job cuts since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, reversing a decade of job gains since the end of the Great Recession, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. And as the pandemic drags on, the losses are continuing to pile up with no end in sight. In September, when many public schools adopted remote-only or hybrid learning models, four times more women than men dropped out of the labor market, putting their careers on hold to become primary caregivers.

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It can be hard to see any silver linings here, but if you look closely, they are there. The pandemic, by itself, isn’t hurting women’s careers. It is merely highlighting — in bright fluorescent yellow marker — the existing inequities in the workplace and society that already created deep-seated disparities between men and women, from the gender pay gap to the lack of women in executive leadership roles.

Keeping women in the workplace during this crisis — and, later, helping those who left to return to work — should be an imperative for employers. This is not just about doing the right thing. Research by McKinsey & Co. indicates that profits and stock performance can be close to 50 percent higher at companies where women are well represented at the top. COVID-19 is giving companies a chance to hit the reset button and rewrite the rules to create a more equitable, more successful workplace.

This is not the time to go back to the way it has always been. Employers need to think boldly. If they do, they will discover that systemic changes benefit all employees, not just women.

“If we actually thought about all our employees working in a more flexible way, it can be better for everyone,” says Boston Consulting Group managing director Matt Krentz, who has been surveying working parents throughout the pandemic. “That’s how you are going to build the best team.”

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Here are five ways the pandemic can reshape the workplace for the better.

Patti Fletcher, a workplace equity and disruption futurist at Workhuman in Framingham.
Patti Fletcher, a workplace equity and disruption futurist at Workhuman in Framingham.Handout

1. Make flexibility the new normal, and recognize that ‘face time’ is overrated.

Pre-COVID, mothers with young children were the ones who typically worked from home, perhaps once or twice a week. Now just about anyone who can work from home does. And guess what? Many employers experienced a seamless transition to remote work.

If remote is in, then “face time” should be out. The pandemic has taught us to make connections and build culture virtually. Forcing everyone to be in the office is a poor measure of how much work is getting done.

Forward-thinking employers will seize this as an opportunity to rethink how to measure success. Perhaps getting the job done should be less about where people work or how many hours they log, and more about what they can accomplish.

For too long, that 9-to-5 mentality was “if I don’t see you, you’re obviously absent,” says Patti Fletcher, a workplace equity and disruption futurist at Workhuman, a Framingham human resources technology company. Fletcher predicts more companies will adopt a hybrid model post-COVID and let employees choose how often they want to physically come into the office.

“That old mind set is pretty much about the person being a machine,” Fletcher says. “What actually is important is the impact.”

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2. Adjust expectations — and rethink performance reviews.

One clear trend has emerged among the multiple surveys of working parents during the pandemic: Women continue to shoulder more of the caregiving responsibilities and are more likely to quit their jobs as a result. A Boston Consulting Group survey found that working mothers are spending, on average, 41 hours a week on child care and education — more than double the amount compared with pre-pandemic.

Nearly half of the women believe they are at a disadvantage compared with colleagues who do not have caregiving responsibilities, according to the survey. And only 58 percent reported that their managers truly understood how the pandemic has changed their household responsibilities. McKinsey found that working mothers with children under age 10 were most vulnerable to dropping out, with 23 percent considering leaving the workforce, compared with only 13 percent of men with children of similar ages.

Meanwhile, senior-level women reported feeling more burned out and under pressure than their male peers; as a result, those women are 1.5 times more likely than male peers to think about downshifting their roles or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19, McKinsey data showed.

Both Boston Consulting and McKinsey recommend companies reevaluate the way performance reviews are conducted and monitor for potential bias against employees with caregiving responsibilities. Because the pandemic has disrupted both work and family life, goals set last year might be unrealistic — and chasing them at all costs could lead to burnout, anxiety, and, ultimately, less productivity.

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Boston Consulting takes the concept one step further and advises companies to consider factoring in caregiving status in talent evaluations, including promotions and pipeline planning. If, for example, the burden of caregiving during the pandemic has had an impact on an annual review, employers should look at longer term performance trends and future potential.

3. The child-care system is broken, and employers must help fix it.

The pandemic has laid bare how fragile and precarious the child-care system is in the United States, and experts agree that reliable and affordable child care is the key to getting our economy back. Companies and policy makers must invest in child care so that women don’t have to keep choosing between their families and their careers.

Before COVID-19, some employers started to take a look at how they could better support working parents, but the virus has given it a new sense of urgency. Some companies have already stepped up, temporarily increasing child-care subsidies or setting up learning centers to accommodate employees' school-age children with remote learning. Yet a September survey by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents employers, indicated that almost a third of the workforce reported having significant issues with child care.

Child care has also caught the attention of Congress. In June, US Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose proposed a bill that would invest $10 billion over five years through competitive grants to help child-care centers renovate their facilities and adapt to the pandemic. Many centers are in dire straits after a government-mandated shutdown forced them to close in the spring. According to Strategies for Children, an early education advocacy group, the child-care sector in Massachusetts lost an estimated $250 million a month during the statewide closures.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren used her speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention in August to highlight the importance of providing high-quality, affordable child care for every family, as well as universal preschool.

“It’s time to recognize that child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation,” Warren said, speaking from a shuttered early childhood center in Springfield. “It’s infrastructure for families.”

Addie Swartz, who started reacHIRE to help women resume their careers.
Addie Swartz, who started reacHIRE to help women resume their careers.Handout

4. To the women who are dropping out: No apologies and no regrets.

Consider this an invitation to the COVID-19 No Apologies Tour. Women who leave the workforce or reduce their hours because of the pandemic should not feel guilty about hitting the pause button. They need to do what’s best for them and for their families.

And when these women are ready to return to work, they should come back with confidence. The economy may be bad, but companies always need good talent. Smart employers will recognize how the pandemic has set back female employees and will get creative about how to woo them back.

If you think women can’t get back on a fast track after a hiatus, think again. Addie Swartz started reacHIRE to help women resume their careers and eliminate the stigma of career breaks. Since the Concord-based company launched in 2013, reacHIRE has placed nearly 1,000 women into new jobs across sectors from financial services to life sciences. About 96 percent of the women hired into full-time roles stay longer than two years.

“We need to meet women where they are,” says Swartz, who founded the company after taking two years off from her career to help her then-teenage daughter recover from a car accident. Swartz likes to say that taking a career break should not be a career breaker. More organizations need to set up a support system to help employees return, she says. “Companies need to create these on-ramps and off-ramps.”

5. Honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mantra: “This child has two parents.”

After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September, a story resurfaced about how she managed to juggle work and motherhood. When her children were young, Ginsburg taught law school at Columbia University and litigated cases, but she was the only parent who received calls from her son’s school complaining about his behavior.

A champion of gender equality, Ginsburg told the teacher: “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”

That should be the mantra of working mothers everywhere post-COVID-19. Like women, men during the pandemic have nearly doubled their child-care and education duties to 37 hours a week, according to Boston Consulting.

Women still bear the bigger burden at home, but the pandemic has shown that men are capable of pitching in more. And their contributions have never been more desperately needed than they are now. Indeed, it’s their turn.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.