While there is so much progress to be celebrated during Women’s History Month—from learning about the incredible stories of female trailblazers to those in the past and present fighting for women’s rights—it feels different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our everyday life and has had an enormous effect on widening gender inequality. As a working mother of two young boys, I know firsthand the challenges and sacrifices so many families have been through over the past year. A recent McKinsey study looked at a number of indicators and found that women were more vulnerable to COVID-19 related economic effects due to existing gender inequalities, such as the types of jobs women have, traditional mindsets of family caring and more. The study warns that without intervention, the pandemic could have lasting effects and set back years of progress.
A disproportionate number of women have left the work force during these difficult times, and it feels that there are still so many barriers and this pandemic has only widened the gap. Companies have an incredible responsibility but also opportunity to help address these barriers by focusing on:
- Flexibility: The pandemic has forced all of us to adapt to a new way of working and many companies are now evaluating what a return to work may look like. As we grapple with returning to work in the future, it will be critical that companies are open to different kinds of flexibility. While some employees may want to be back in the office, others may have found a better work life balance working remotely. Speaking to women in my own network, having more time at home has allowed many working mothers to find more connectivity at home, while still doing their job. They can’t imagine a time when they have to return back to an office five days a week. While difficult, perhaps one silver lining of this pandemic has been the shift in mindset that working from home is an option. As many companies explore a new hybrid work culture, it will be key to ensure that all employees have the same opportunities as we return to work and evolve and build on this model.
- Paid parental leave: We need to expand the discussion from maternity leave to parental leave. There are numerous studies that have shown the positive effect of maternity leave and the ability to return to work for the same job after having a child. It also helps ensure that women return to work. However, preconceived gender norms still exist and expanding leave to all parents is absolutely critical in shifting the dialogue to shared caring responsibilities and changing the narrative to equal division of labor both at home and in the workplace.
- Company culture: Creating an inclusive company culture plays such an important role in success not just for women but all employees. It is important for all employees to feel a sense of acceptance and representation. This means recruiting for the future but also ensuring women are represented in leadership roles across the organization. Companies should invest in their talent by training at all levels and promoting female leaders within. Additionally, companies should invest in trainings that focus on culture, such as unconscious bias trainings and more.
Personally, I can’t stress enough the importance of an inclusive work culture. Like many working parents out there, I am juggling personal demands and work, always in search of the desired work life balance. Adding the layer of a global pandemic, where childcare and the usual family support have vanished, has made the balance even harder. As individuals and leaders, we need to commit to supporting women in the workplace and creating an inclusive environment that is supportive and flexible.