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Protecting women’s careers during COVID-19

Why and how managers must act to stop the she-cession now

“COVID-19 could set women back half a decade”, reveals a 2020 McKinsey/Lean report. “We’re in the thick of the ‘she-cession’”, confirms Christine Ro from the BBC.


Managers and team leaders are strategic partners in mitigating the unprecedented effects of the pandemic on working women. Research indicates that although two-thirds of companies did ask managers to implement mitigating measures, unfortunately, few have been able to act in a way that was felt by, and made a difference to their employees.


Thus, we have compiled a range of advice and suggestions to inspire managers and leaders on how to adapt work, offer support and transform the organizational culture to support women in the workplace.

Protecting women’s careers in COVID-19
Figure 1: Companies have asked managers to check in during COVID-19 (Lean In)

Before we dive into what can be done, let’s take a quick look at the perils that professional women are facing during COVID-19. The most alarming figure? In the US, as many as 2 million women report considering taking a leave of absence or quitting their job. This would have dramatic consequences for progress made in terms of gender equality, pay gap and female leadership.

Female careers in jeopardy


The pandemic is likely to hit the hardest women of colour and minority backgrounds. This is because essential work in front-line sectors such as retail, healthcare, education and hospitality are among those most affected by lockdowns. These sectors typically have the highest feminization rates and in the richest countries, women of migrant origins often fill them in, causing this disparity.


Secondly, because of lockdowns and quarantine periods, many mothers juggle their professional obligations with childcare and/or home-schooling. These parental duties are still predominantly taken on by women, adding up to an estimated 20 hours per week of unpaid work per working mother. Subsequently, their mental wellbeing has suffered the most (see figure 2).

Protecting women’s careers in COVID-19
Figure 2: The effects of COVID-19 on parents (PBSO News Hours, 2020)

The McKinsey/Lean In study also reports that senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to think about downshifting their career or leaving. The repercussions on lower levels would be dramatic; indeed, these few women are the ones actively championing gender diversity in the workplace, positively affecting the talent pipeline. Losing these senior women would negatively impact the future of women in management.


Though there are undeniable advantages of telework, the truth is that many struggle to balance personal and work commitments, and women are disproportionally impacted. Already by 2008, Hillbrecht et al. highlighted that telework is likely to “perpetuate traditional gender roles” and create “optimal temporal conditions for women to work even harder by facilitating opportunities for more caregiving”, thus exacerbating their mental load.


Strikingly, we learn from the 2020 ‘Women in the workplace’ report by McKinsey and Lean In that less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic. This means that many employees are now confronted by a dilemma: either fall short of pre-COVID-19 expectations or sacrifice their wellbeing (and that of their families) to keep up with an unsustainable pace. In addition to the looming threat of layoffs, furloughs (temporary unemployment) and wage freezes that men also face, women, in general, are in a more disadvantaged position to negotiate changes and adaptation to their work. 


Why? This study uncovered a phenomenon called social cost to negotiation experienced by women. It showed that when women negotiate, people often develop negative perceptions of them and report being less keen to work with them in the future. A man who attempts to negotiate tends to be qualified as ‘assertive’, whilst his female colleague is likely to be seen as ‘pushy’ or ‘aggressive’ because of gender role-based expectations. This unconscious bias actively discriminates against women and may deter many from negotiating at all. In the words of the researchers, when it comes to women “sometimes it does hurt to ask”.



Whilst the situation is bleak, there are many things managers and organizations can do – here are some ideas:


      1. Adapt the ways of working 
      2. Review the workloads and priorities
      3. Beware of part-time work!
      4. Provide resources and support
      5. Change the work culture
      6. Beware of compassion fatigue!
      7. Continue forging career paths


Keep on reading to find out the details.

1. Adapt the ways of working


At the moment, the most important intervention managers can introduce concerns flexibility. Providing those with parental duties (or everyone) with flexible working terms, as long as they get the job done, allows employees to shape their day according to what their family needs. 


For example, at Bank Muscat, a financial firm in Oman, part of each workday (from 8:00 to 14:00) is fixed while the remaining hours remain at the employee’s discretion. Introducing measures that allow men to fulfil their share of parental responsibilities supports women in turn.


At the same time, it can be helpful to maintain work-life boundaries by implementing strict etiquette, e.g. no meetings, calls and emails before or after a given time. When working from home means that employees are expected to respond to emails around the clock, those who are bearing the burdens of increased childcare needs are at a major disadvantage. As these are still most often the mothers, setting the work time boundaries can create a level playing field and, to some extent, counter-balance the COVID-related gender inequalities at work.

2. Review workloads and priorities


Review your expectations on deliverables and productivity and ask yourself whether they’re still realistic. Organize regular bilaterals with team members to ensure that current workloads are manageable. It is also important to adjust formal performance review criteria, alongside implicit expectations.


Consider reducing workloads – after all, there are things that are essential to the goals and mission of your organization, and things that are ‘good to do’ but are not actually crucial. Develop clarity on what is the most strategic use of your employees’ time to support them in keeping their task lists highly relevant to current priorities. Other techniques, alongside resetting goals, include narrowing project scopes, or keeping the same goals but extending deadlines


Productivity gains can be made by paying attention to a variety of working processes, for example, the email culture and how information flows within an organization. Reviewing these may be long overdue, but the pandemic offers a great opportunity to step back and revise current practices.

3. Beware of part-time work!


Actively prevent women from taking the hit. Aaron Genest, president of SaskTech, a Canadian tech company, explained in a viral Twitter thread why he declined a request of his female employee to reduce work to 80%. Her husband was taking on more responsibility in his work and they were having trouble keeping their children on track during remote learning.


Aaron Genest’s decision was not a failure to accommodate an employee’s need, but a refusal to play into a culture in which women systematically end up earning less, sacrificing their career advancement and future pension prospects.

Protecting women’s careers in COVID-19

Instead, we’re working together to make sure that she’s still productive and happy, that she feels comfortable blocking off whatever time she needs in her calendar to support her family, and that she and her family will be healthy and ready for when we come out the other side.” 


For Genest, the secret behind his high-performing team resides in solidarity without expectation of further recognition. “When someone has to leave to pick up their kids, someone else covers”.

4. Provide resources to ease caring duties

Consider putting someone in charge of collating child and elderly care resource sheets and organizing resource sharing. This saves your employees’ time on doing research individually – another task that frequently lands on women’s laps. 


COFACE Families Europe is currently developing the European Family Lab, an online platform to build inclusive family support across Europe. The current focus is on connecting family professionals, but soon the Lab will target families and children in a way directly relevant to their lives.


As many as 69% of mothers say daycare affects their career decisions. As we hope to gradually return to on-site work, the organizations which have the capacity may consider whether on-site daycare is achievable (possibly by partnering with other organizations sharing the same building). Other options include developing partnerships with nearby childcare facilities to secure spots for your staff’s children. Saving the time spent commuting between childcare facility, workplace and home will inevitably translate into a more energized and happy workforce.

5. Change the work culture


Favourable work culture is key to counteracting the issues women experience at work, especially in the COVID era. Did you know that by subverting masculine and male notions of power that revolve around authority, competition and violence, you are actively challenging patriarchal gender norms and boosting female leadership at the same time? 


Both female and male managers can make sure women’s voices are heard, by diverting the attention back to the one who was speaking, if she has been interrupted. This is as important as ever in remote meetings and calls. 


Strive for democratic, legitimate and accountable practices of power in your organization. Make sure it is clear where and how decisions are taken, that resources are shared equally and credit is given where it is due – for both visible and invisible contributions. 


Endorse a family-friendly culture and promote equitable sharing of childcare duties. For this, leaders and senior executives must lead by example to convince others to do this too. Research has shown that male employees are more likely to take paternity leave if at least one of their superiors has done so. 


Enforce a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination and against anyone using denigrating language towards individuals who do not conform to the traditional gender norms and roles, be it household chores or gender presentation. 

6. Beware of compassion fatigue

In mission-driven organizations (which tend to be feminized), it is common to focus empathy and energy on delivering its mission or on the people it serves. Sometimes this means that little psychological surplus is left for colleagues and teammates, which can seriously impact relationships at work. This is one of the effects of compassion fatigue.


It can be increasingly felt during these challenging times, when “everyone needs more than anyone can give”. It is therefore imperative to put self-care at the front. According to Global Giving, progressive nonprofits are on the road to incorporating and mainstreaming wellbeing into broader organizational structures.

Protecting women’s careers in COVID-19

Encouraging staff to practice self-care and creating a culture that supports them in this starts with leading by example: wellbeing practices won’t be prioritized by staff if they don’t see their leaders doing the same. This can be as simple as sticking to agreed work times and avoiding sending emails at weekends to give everyone headspace and rest, or participating in online yoga classes during an extended lunch break and inviting others to do the same.


On a regular basis inquire about the wellbeing of your troops, recognize and reward their contribution and invest in team dynamics (see our detailed advice on supporting employee wellbeing here). When an employee signals a problem – react and remedy it to make sure that no issues or team conflicts fester and deplete people of energy.


Whilst approaches to support need to be tailored to each person individually, solutions can be found by brainstorming with your professional peers inside or outside your organization. Especially supporting women with care duties at work may require the wisdom of the beehive and benefit from exchanges of good practices.

7. Continue forging career paths


Contrary to widespread belief, having children does not make women less ambitious professionally. Research shows that ambitions are primarily influenced by corporate culture. Thus, it is important to check if the ways of working of your organization do not unwittingly discriminate against or penalize mothers. “Personal needs may take a priority at certain times but that doesn’t mean that career ambitions wane”, point out the authors of this article.


That’s why it is imperative to have ongoing conversations about professional goals and ambitions in spite of the pandemic. Without overburdening your staff, promote flexible learning opportunities such as online trainings and encourage them to attend relevant online events. 


To prepare for the transition to the “new normal” managers may also want to reshape the skill sets of their workforce to meet new requirements (see figure 3). Be mindful of whether women can access these opportunities on equal footing in the current times.

Protecting women’s careers in COVID-19
Figure 3: Ways of reshaping the workforce to address shifts (McKinsey, 2020)

Managers and leaders aren’t hopeless in the eyes of the pandemic: a lot can be done to counter the “she-cession”. Their role is crucial to preventing further damage, maintaining progress in terms of gender equality and safeguarding the economy. McKinsey and Lean In estimate that if no action is taken the global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030. Conversely, advancing gender equality will add $13 trillion to the global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario. Now more than ever, there is strength in unity. 

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Alloco, B., Lovich, D. & Stohlmeyer Russell M. (July 2018, 27). Making the Workplace Work for Dual-Career Couples. Boston Consulting Group. Accessed at https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/making-workplace-work-dual-career-couples


Bowles, H.R., Babcock, L. & Lai, L. (2007). Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Process, 102(1), 84-103. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749597806000884 


Douglas, D. (February 2016, 8). How to Get Dads To Take Parental Leave? Seeing Other Dads Do It. NPR. Accessed at https://www.npr.org/2016/02/08/465726445/how-to-get-dads-to-take-parental-leave-seeing-other-dads-do-it?t=1612193190900 


Hilbrecht, M., Shaw, S. M., Johnson, L. C., & Andrey, J. (2008). ‘I’m home for the kids’: contradictory implications for work–life balance of teleworking mothers. Gender, Work & Organization, 15(5), 454-476. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0432.2008.00413.x 


Marcoux, H. (July 2020, 2). Without childcare, 40% of working moms are working even more: the pandemic is fast tracking burnout. Motherly. Accessed at https://www.mother.ly/news/childcare-coronavirus-survey 


McKinsey. (2020). COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects. McKinsey & Company.  Accessed at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects 


McKinsey/Lean In. (2020). Women in The Workplace. McKinsey & Company. Accessed at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace 


Patrick, B. (October 2017, 26). 9 Ways the Cost of Child Care Affects Working Parents’ Careers. Care. Accessed at https://www.care.com/c/stories/1547/9-ways-the-cost-of-child-care-affects-working-parents/ 


Ro, C. (October 2020, 27). Why this recession disproportionately affects women. BBC. Accessed at https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201021-why-this-recession-disproportionately-affects-women 


Santhanam, L. (July 2020, 23). ‘This is not working’. Parents juggling jobs and child care under COVID-19 see no good solutions. PBSO News Hour. Accessed at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/this-is-not-working-parents-juggling-jobs-and-child-care-under-covid-19-see-no-good-solutions

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