Women And The Pandemic Workplace: Leadership’s Critical New Challenges

Leadership’s responsibility for assuring gender equality within the workplace just received an important, highly public “push.” The sixth annual Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, featured in a recent special edition of The Wall Street Journal, concludes that women have born an outsized workplace-related burden during the Covid-19 economy, which could have long term consequences if not promptly addressed.

The message to corporate leadership is clear— either invest in a more flexible workplace or risk losing women employees, especially in leadership.

In many respects, this important message comes at a most inopportune time. Corporate leaders are already struggling to manage pandemic-related operational, financial and strategic concerns, while confronting nontraditional issues such as underrepresented communities, social justice and corporate social responsibility. Volatility projected from an unstable economy, a potentially contested national election and a deeply divided electorate also loom. And to some, the “gender equality” box may have already been “checked.” Didn’t we already have this gender thing fixed?

Yet here comes McKinsey and LeanIn, with an exhaustively conducted report, to flag new concerns that threaten to undermine the many meritorious steps forward in gender equity that have already taken place, including advances in pay equity, and in attaining senior leadership positions.  Covid-19 has created a potentially massive talent development issue which, according to the report, requires immediate leadership attention.

This was no back-of-the envelope analysis, rushed out before the election. The Wall Street Journal described the report as “one of the most comprehensive pandemic-era surveys of working women and men, in which researchers at McKinsey and LeanIn polled more than 40,000 North American employees.” This kind of third party analysis is tough for corporate leadership to ignore.

The report is grounded in the startling conclusion that working women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic-roiled economy. It observes that while women constitute 47% of the U.S. labor force, they accounted for 54% of initial Covid-19 related job losses and still amount to 49% of those losses. According to the report, this can be attributed in part to a segregated workforce in those industry sectors in which women are employed in the types of jobs that disappeared with the initial economic adjustments to the Covid-19 crisis.

But the critical takeaway for corporate leadership it that one in four women are considering either downshifting their careers, or leaving the workforce entirely. The report describes this as a looming crisis for corporate America which, without bold responsive steps, could erase the “slow but measurable progress” made in recent years toward gender equality.

The impact of Covid-19 has affected corporate stakeholders across all levels. But as Sheryl Sandberg noted in The Wall Street Journal coverage, women have been affected the most, identifying three groups in particular.

The first unusually affected group is working mothers. The report’s perspective is that they were already working a “double shift” (i.e., a full day of work, followed by hours of work at home) before the pandemic. Now, with the shift to virtual/home schooling (and the loss of many child-care options) the concern is that the double shift has “doubled again.”

The second unusually affected group is senior-level women. The report’s perspective is that they are under intense pressure at both work and home. This is exacerbated by statistics indicating that among senior-level leaders with partners, 63% of women have a partner who similarly works full time, as opposed to just 35% of men.

On top of this, it is fairly well established that women are typically held to more stringent performance standards and are more often held responsible for underperformance. Thus, senior-level women are more likely to be judged harshly during times of crisis (e.g., the pandemic). The net impact of all this is that senior-level women are 1.5 times as likely as men at the same level to think about downshifting or leaving, primarily because of “burnout.”

The third unusually affected group is Black women. In addition to the obvious challenges, this group of women must also confront the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community and the emotional impact over highly public social justice incidents. There are related concerns that work does not offer a supportive environment. The report notes that these particular concerns may accelerate “burnout.”

The report identifies six specific action items for companies to pursue in order to address these Covid-driven gender equality concerns:

1.    Make the workplace a more sustainable environment, especially for working mothers and senior level women.

2.    Reset norms in terms of work options and communicate support for workplace flexibility.

3.    Reassess performance criteria applied before the pandemic for continued utility.

4.    Take measures to minimize gender bias within the organization.

5.    Adjust policies and programs to better support employees during Covid-19.

6.    Strengthen employee communication regarding the state of the business and key decisions.

While there is optimism that these and similar initiatives can lead to a more flexible and empathetic workplace, it may require a truly collaborative effort between the board and management to achieve them. And why the board, one might fairly ask? Matters of employee oversight and culture have long been the focus of senior executive leadership. Wouldn’t this be a classic example of the board encroaching on a management prerogative? Not anymore; not with these issues, with this data and with these risks.

Boards have a clear obligation to exercise oversight of corporate culture, which is perceived as a meaningful corporate asset in a variety of ways (e.g., influencing operational performance, talent development and organizational reputation). The promotion of gender equality and inclusion, and matters of talent development and retention, are increasingly prominent elements of organizational culture.

Corporate boards will be expected to assist in this effort, through the encouragement and support of management initiatives that will continue to ensure gender equality and inclusion during these challenging times. Boards must exercise continued oversight of the effectiveness of such initiatives, demonstrating a “tone at the top” so individual and full board actions reflect commitment to these themes. So, yes, it needs to be a team effort.

The possibility that more than one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce cannot be dismissed by corporate leadership. It’s something that may have arisen at a bad time for the company, and it may serve as a significant distraction from an already full board agenda. But it’s something that can’t be put off. This is a potential crisis that must be confronted.

Companies simply cannot jeopardize the progress made to date toward gender equality. The McKinsey/LeanIn report provides the framework for an effective corporate response.

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