Making Work Work for Women

Facing unique circumstances, employers are offering additional support to retain female employees.

By Marta Chmielowicz

The events of 2020 have been challenging for most, with lockdowns, school closures, and the switch to remote blurring the boundaries between work and home like never before. Women in particular have been impacted, often responsible for shouldering a large share of childcare, household labor, and homeschooling on top of a full day of work.

“The pandemic has impacted working mothers in ways that we would have never imagined,” says Kristin Gwinner, CHRO of Chico’s FAS. “Prior to the pandemic, women were pulling double shifts to balance work and home responsibilities. During the pandemic, women are managing round-the-clock childcare and homeschooling while trying to meet work deadlines at home, which is now doubling as their office.”

Meanwhile, Black women who already face more obstacles to professional advancement are coping with these issues and more as their communities face the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and civil unrest. Latina mothers are also feeling the pressure; according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study, they are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework, while Black mothers are twice as likely to be handling these responsibilities for their families.

This is taking a toll, causing burnout and threatening the workforce gains that women have made over the years. In fact, McKinsey’s research reports that one in four mothers are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This shift would result in a crisis for corporate America, reducing diversity, innovation, and the number of women in leadership positions for years to come.

“It’s still early but my guess is that we’ll see the trend of women leaving the workforce picking up over the next six to 12 months if we as employers don’t ensure that we have the flexibility that’s needed to retain these individuals,” says Terilyn Juarez Monroe, chief people officer and senior vice president of people and places at Varian. “The downstream consequence of us not trying to find that flexibility or work-life balance is that we’ll end up having less diverse workforces.”

But this challenging, unprecedented time also reveals an opportunity for companies to address the needs of their employees, invest in building a more flexible workforce, and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to succeed over the long term.

How can organizations support their female employees and ensure they retain their valuable talent during this crisis?

Understand the Pain Points

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of all employees, necessitating a more empathetic and compassionate approach to people management than ever before. As companies look to retain their female employees during this challenging time, it is important to navigate the crisis with them by seeking insight into the obstacles they face each day.

However, for some organizations, asking workers—particularly women—to confide in their employers may be an uphill battle. According to McKinsey’s study, mothers are more than twice as likely as fathers (24% versus 11%) to worry that their performance is being judged negatively because of caregiving responsibilities. They are also far more likely to feel uncomfortable sharing work-life challenges (29% versus 19%) or that they’re a parent at all (13% versus 5%).

Employers that wish to overcome this fear need to make employee support a cultural issue. One organization that does this successfully is Hyland, a software company that offers flexible schedules, on-site daycare, parent peer groups, well-being support, and inclusive leadership training, among others, in order to meet employees where they are in life and work.

“At Hyland, we want each employee to reach their maximum personal potential while maintaining a healthy work-life balance,” says Kathleen Vegh, director of employee experience. “Our decisions are rooted in a deep sense of care for the individuals that work here and their families. Built around the goal of ensuring all employees get the right support they need, Hyland’s company culture has always been inclusive to our underrepresented groups, including women.”

To begin driving true inclusion, organizations need to seek feedback from their employees and adapt their policies and programs based on the results.

“Organizations can support their employees by understanding what their pain points are. Instead of creating programs for the sake of creating programs, they should really target specific gaps—increased family responsibilities or the increased need to have more flexible working schedules, for example,” says Nancy Wang, cofounder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), a non-profit organization working to empower women to become product and technical leaders.

One effective approach to evaluating employee pain points is surveying. Clothing company PVH Corp. does this through bi-monthly pulse surveys as well as bi-annual “PVH Listens” associate engagement surveys. According to Executive Vice President and CHRO Dave Kozel, these represent valuable opportunities to solicit anonymous employee feedback, develop action plans to build on positive results, and address areas for improvement. “Now more than ever, it’s important that we continually re-think and evolve policies and ensure women are represented in the planning and key decision-making process,” he says.

Hyland has found success by implementing a bi-annual employee experience survey that is supplemented with daily feedback from a virtual employee suggestion box. The company uses both sources of feedback to build out resource offerings based on the needs of its employees.  For example, Vegh says that employee survey results from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis were the catalyst for new programs that included mental health resources, best practices for working remotely, and strategies to remain connected in the virtual world.

Monroe says that Varian has also shaped its policies around the feedback gathered from wellness surveys. The company’s survey asks questions around three key themes: employee engagement; support around COVID-19; and issues of well-being, such as connection, work-life balance, and managing through change. Results are then discussed with a diverse focus group of employees who lend a voice to the data and further clarify any hotspots. Recently, survey results indicated that employees were struggling to focus at work due to all the stressors of COVID-19. In response, Varian developed a series of workshops called “Purpose-Driven Leadership,” which helped employees think about things like zooming out to look at the bigger picture and zooming in to focus with intention.

Surveys provide insightful information, but organizations also need to facilitate honest and open lines of communication between team leaders and their employees. “Listen actively to gain an understanding of key issues,” says Gwinner. “Create a safe space for associates by encouraging people leaders to proactively and sincerely check in with members of their teams and simply inquire how they are doing.”

Offer Flexibility

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, women—and mothers in particular—have taken on an even heavier load. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study:

  • Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving.
  • They’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare—equivalent to 20 hours a week.
  • More than 70% of fathers think they are splitting household labor equally with their partner during COVID-19, but only 44% of mothers say the same.
  • Single mothers report financial insecurity as one of their top concerns.

To mitigate the stress women are experiencing during the pandemic, it is important for companies to adopt employee-centric policies that prioritize flexibility.

“During this crisis, we’ve set an organizational tone of flexibility and understanding,” says Vegh. “For instance, we offer employees the flexibility of working the hours that are most productive for them based on what they’re juggling. This is especially impactful because our leadership team has modeled this behavior. Additionally, our team has prioritized consistent transparency to keep our staff well informed in an effort to minimize the anxiety that comes with the unknown. We’re leading with compassion by leading with flexibility and showing grace when employees are struggling during this challenging time.”

According to Gwinner, consolidating meetings into predictable chunks of the day can make a big difference for employees who need to juggle homeschooling and childcare.

Additionally, allowing staff to work remotely can also take the pressure off, giving them an opportunity to be present when caring for their families. Monroe predicts that in the post-COVID world, there will be a shift in the way that companies treat the office environment; it will be used to inspire collaboration, build community, and connect rather than a place where employees will need to come daily.

“In the past, we’ve focused on how to create more space and fit more people into the office by moving cubes closer together,” she says. “Now, instead, we have an opportunity to think about how we can change the environment where people work and use remote working as a key lever to retain great talent who need the flexibility.”

Focus on Wellness

Working from home can relieve some of the stress that working mothers experience, but it also brings additional complications that require increased resources and support from employers.

“There’s an emotional toll to making decisions about childcare, navigating remote learning, worrying about your family’s health, washing the growing pile of dishes in the sink (we’re all home more!), and losing the face-to-face interactions of your support network,” says Chatelle Lynch, senior vice president and chief people officer at McAfee. “Senior women in particular are carrying a heavier load as they work to support and keep their teams engaged in addition to caring for their families. There’s a massive impact that we are still learning about.”

To ensure that women have everything they need to manage the challenges of the pandemic while staying productive, companies are increasing their wellness perks and benefits offerings.

For example, Chico’s FAS’s Gwinner says that since the start of the pandemic, her company has put in place the following benefits:

  • Increasing the hourly pay for associates working in distribution centers by $2 per hour.
  • Opening an on-site daycare center for parents working from home or the office.
  • Providing on-site health clinics for wellness exams, health screenings, breast exams, and free flu vaccines, as well as an on-site behavioral health counselor to help employees manage their stress and anxiety.
  • Offering tele-health services with remote access to healthcare providers 24 hours a day.
  • Providing access to an on-site fitness center as well as virtual yoga, meditation and mindfulness sessions, and on-demand classes.

McAfee is also responding with additional resources to promote employee health and assist employees in their day-to-day responsibilities. For example, the company is exploring the possibility of offering laundry services as a perk; has expanded its employee assistance program (EAP) to include five counseling sessions at no cost; and has implemented “Care@Work,” a service from Care.com that helps employees find childcare, pet walkers, senior caregivers, housekeepers, and more.

PVH has expedited the global launch of its EAP during the pandemic to support the mental health of its associates and provide them with access to well-being resources as they navigate the new reality. “The EAP provides immediate care to help with managing daily life as well as tough situations such as stress, anxiety, grief, relationship counseling, and substance abuse,” says Kozel. “Tools and resources such as helpful articles and webinars are also available to assist with a wide array of mental health and wellness topics.”

Monroe says that EAPs have been critical to Varian’s wellness programming since the start of the pandemic. In addition to offering things like Zoom fitness classes and free tele-health and meditation services, the company hired its EAP provider to lead a series of classes around resilience and well-being. Nearly 2,000 employees participated in sessions about understanding anxiety, combating depression, and balancing work and personal life.

“We had external subject matter experts come in and talk about things people needed to hear about. Our employees appreciated that because they didn’t know where else to go to get that support,” she explains.

Encourage Connection

Another way HR leaders can offer social and well-being support is through employee resource groups (ERGs). Kozel says ERGs can provide a safe space “for women to have their voices heard and create connections with colleagues who may be experiencing similar challenges during this time of uncertainty.”

His company offers virtual conversations such as “LGBTQIA+ History Month Talk,” “Hispanic Heritage Month Coffee Chat,” and “Working Parents Time Out” to help associates around the world listen, learn, and deepen connections to each other.

Hyland offers both multicultural resource groups and a women’s employee group called “HylandWIN (Women in Networking)” to support women in the U.S., APAC, and EMEA regions with the goal of connecting and empowering women employees. “Over the past couple of months, HylandWIN has rolled out virtual programming, including networking and speaking events, and created a toolkit for women to share tips and learn from each other on ways to cope with balancing work and life in this time,” says Vegh.

Lynch confirms that her organization’s ERG for women, “McAfee Women in Security (WISE),” helps women feel a stronger sense of belonging by giving them opportunities to share experiences and lean on each other for support.

According to Kozel, these employee-led organizations can also provide valuable insights into the needs of women in the workplace; PVH works closely with its women’s and working parents’ ERGs to identify what matters most and opportunities to make the culture more inclusive.

Prioritizing Career Development

The beginning of 2020 marked a rising trend of women’s representation in corporate America. McKinsey reports that between 2015 and 2020, the share of women in senior vice president roles grew from 23% to 28% and from 17% to 21% in the C-suite. However, despite these gains, a “broken rung” in promotions to the manager level prevented true representation. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women, 71 Latinas, and 58 Black women were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered at the manager level at the beginning of 2020, holding just 38% of manager positions while men held 62%.

The COVID-19 crisis is threatening this progress even more, forcing women to leave the workplace at higher rates than men for the first time and limiting the available pool of women leaders.

This is confirmed by AWIP’s Future of Women 2020 report:

  • Fifty-one percent of women feel the pandemic will affect their opportunity for promotion, compared to 34% of men.
  • The ability to switch jobs or advance to a new job will also be affected, as reported by 53% of women and 45% of men.

To combat these differences, organizations have to advocate for their women employees and create opportunities for continuous career development.

  • Provide learning programs. Women who feel pressured to put aside their careers can quickly lose their competitive edge in the talent marketplace, so it is up to employers to ensure that they are developing the key skills they will need to succeed today and in the future.

“Organizations have to focus on identifying the key skills that their employees need,” says Wang. “If you are a company, think about the core skills that can uplevel your workforce, whether it’s understanding the cloud or the world of telecommunications. What we need to move away from is upleveling for the sake of upleveling without a clear purpose. When employees understand what they can get out of the trainings, it increases engagement and the value-add becomes clear because it’s self-motivated.”

Chico’s FAS is focused on retaining its associates and providing them with opportunities for career advancement. During this pandemic, Gwinner says the company doubled down on its commitment, offering mentoring and training to support the internal advancement of its associates with positive results: within the last year, more than half of internal promotions were granted to women, including the CEO.

PVH has also prioritized continuous learning, increasing its PVH University offerings to include management courses on leading with empathy, driving inclusiveness, managing burnout, and more.

  • Offer virtual networking opportunities. Learning programs can be combined with virtual networking sessions to develop valuable professional connections that may open up opportunities down the line.

For example, Wang says that AWIP recently launched its first Coursera specialization program that enables women to get high quality content and thought leadership without attending in-person events. The program consists of small study groups of women and people of color working together to achieve cloud specialization in the IT industry—a field where women can expect advancement opportunities in the future.

“It’s important to encourage career development, especially now that the modality has changed. It takes more intentional work to reach out to someone and set up a Zoom networking call than it did before,” says Wang.

Managers should take interest in their employees’ networking efforts, making an active effort to inquire into how many people they have met outside of their project and what they have learned.

  • Encourage mentoring. In normal times, mentoring is an important part of career development for underrepresented groups in the workforce. Whether formally taken under the wing of a senior company leader or informally engaging a speaker at a conference, women rely on relationships to learn and propel their careers forward.

However, according to AWIP’s study, only 24% of respondents reported that they can find sponsors and mentors internally, with 49% saying that it would be a challenge and the remaining 18% deeming it impossible.

Furthermore, two-thirds (60%) reported they would look outside their organization to find a mentor, whereas less than half (46%) look inside their organization for a mentor. Most surprisingly, one in four (25%) reported they didn’t know where to look for a mentor.

To give women a faster path to career advancement, Wang emphasizes the importance of a powerful mentorship program. AWIP’s approach includes pairing senior leaders with aspiring managers in formal programs and leading mentoring circles on Zoom.

“Previously, mentorship was part program and part very organic,” she says. “Because barriers are greater and times are scarce, you have to think about mechanisms you can implement to make sure the program is successful, and ways to make sure the mentors know the goals of the program so that employees understand the value of participating.”

Women in the workforce are facing unprecedented obstacles, with household and childcare demands vying for their time and attention in the post-COVID-19 climate. If organizations want to retain these talented workers now and in the future, they will need to take specific measures to transform their culture and provide opportunities for growth and development.

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Posted December 15, 2020 in Workforce Management

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