APCO alumni Dania Tanur and Dominique Scott also contributed to this article.
Every year, we recognize the month of March as a designated moment in time to celebrate and acknowledge the myriad contributions women have made throughout history. March is not only Women’s History Month in the United States, it’s also a time for the voices and experiences of women around the world to be heard with collective resonance on International Women’s Day (IWD)—a globally-recognized day to reflect on the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and to call for accelerating gender parity around the world.
APCO’s focus for Women’s History Month 2021 is “I’m Every Type of Woman,” a theme intended to shine a light on all of the identities, qualities, attributes and skills that blend together to make up each and every woman and the essence that they bring to their professional and personal lives each and every day. As the founding Co-Chairs of APCO’s Women’s Leadership Group, an employee resource group started just one year ago, we believe this theme is particularly apt to acknowledge the unique challenges that the last year has brought.
This March is different in that it marks the unofficial one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold and disrupting our daily lives in the United States. This unprecedented global health and economic crisis has brought on a global recession—or more accurately, a “shecession.” According to the Center for American Progress, the vast majority of job losses in the last year have been incurred by women, especially among women of color. And it extends beyond furloughs and lay-offs; many women have considered or chosen to reduce their work hours or leave the work force altogether due to shifting demands and pandemic-induced deficiencies such as a lack of access to proper dependent or childcare. A recent McKinsey study of over 40,000 employees found that 1 in 4 women considered leaving the workforce or deprioritizing their careers to deal with the shifting demands brought on by the pandemic. The study concluded that if every woman who was in fact considering quitting her job or reducing her workload did so, another two million women would exit the U.S. workforce.
Women have always juggled many responsibilities in the workplace and at home, and the pandemic has further exposed this dichotomy as so many have paused or slowed their careers at a greater clip than men to support the shifting needs in home life. The disproportionate exits between women and men from the workforce should be considered a signal to employers to consider how company policies may, or may not, be equitably supporting women. Similarly, it should raise alarms that we risk erasing all the progress gained for women in the workplace in the last few decades and the efforts we’ve made toward gender diversity in the last six years.
So what can employers do to help retain their employees and the women in their ranks? Women should never be faced with a circumstance that makes them view their careers and their personal lives as a zero sum game. In order for these women to feel safe, and know that they have the flexible and equitable space to succeed, employers should bear some responsibility and take action.
- Get educated. The COVID-19 crisis has created monumental disruption in corporate America, but women—especially mothers, caregivers, senior-level women and Black women—have disproportionately faced distinct challenges. Company leaders, line managers and mentors can take steps to learn about and better understand the ongoing and exacerbated challenges facing women in the workplace, including choosing to understand the real needs of employees and taking steps to support them accordingly. Resources abound, including this Paradigm for Parity white paper, this session from the UN Global Compact or this article in the Harvard Business Review speak to the ways that employers and business leaders can better support women in the workplace.
- Embrace and model flexibility. Life balance on and behind the screens—especially for mothers and caregivers—is very clearly an ongoing struggle. Many women want to make both parts of their lives compatible, and they know that choosing to leave the workforce will create an even harder challenge because reentering the workforce altogether is harder than choosing to stay with employer concessions. A company can provide room for life’s inevitable changes and actively demonstrate that women will not be faced with having to choose between career growth and personal needs.
- Create open lines of communication, foster transparency and encourage allyship. There are substantial interest and ample hope that a better work-life integration will materialize soon. In our meetings, we discuss unique challenges for women: intersectionality, motherhood, identity, equity and equality and more. Colleagues have felt the benefit of having a dedicated, safe moment to reflect on their experiences and an opportunity to identify and/or sympathize with other women. This has translated into stronger moments of community, a deeper sense of belonging. We’ve also been discussing choosing self-compassion in order to avoid the cyclical trap of self-blame and shame that so often comes with asking for help after feeling a sense of failure for not meeting the expectations we place on ourselves.
- For others in the workplace: speak up! While the burden of caregiving and childcare is falling to women, both women and men not directly affected can support their colleagues by encouraging meetings to start and end on time, keeping work to working hours (or at least emails) and—especially in leadership positions—asking yourself whether members of a team all need to be present or an outcome couldn’t be similarly served by email correspondence.
The last year has illuminated the resiliency within everyone, but especially women. It is on all of us to champion all women from every walk of life. The above ideas are starting points, but it’s important to remember, too, that what each of us is experiencing is unlike anything we’ve ever been through in the past. We are shaping the future now. Workplaces can help make space for every type of woman, and make space to try, stumble and figure out how to take a step forward. As we celebrate this year’s Women’s History Month, we must recognize that we very much stand on the shoulders of those women who came before us and created space in the workplace for us. Holding that space, and retaining women in the workforce, is our collective responsibility.