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6 Steps to Support Women Leaders Through COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has left no life untouched, forcing each of us to reinvent how we live and work. (Did any of us really end 2019 thinking that the hottest accessory of 2020 would be a face mask?) However, while we’re all feeling the effects of this time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that women – especially women of color – are being disproportionately impacted by this crisis.

Even during the best of times, many women work full-time jobs and come home and bear the brunt of childcare and household responsibilities. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as many women have lost the structures they’ve previously counted on – namely school and childcare – to juggle it all. Women with full-time jobs, a partner, and children report that they are now spending a combined 71 hours a week on child care, elder care, and household chores, compared to men’s reported 51 hours — a difference that equates to a part-time job. This increase in household responsibilities combined with the pressure to always be “on” in this remote work era, has left many women feeling burned out and forced to choose between their family responsibilities and career. How are women dealing with this pressure?

Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report found that more than one in four women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This amounts to nearly two million highly skilled women workers and leaders exiting the workforce, essentially erasing the progress towards gender equity achieved over the past six years.

This potential mass exodus of women from the workplace isn’t only bad for women – it’s bad for business. Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women hold senior management positions. Additionally, senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies, to mentor and sponsor other women and to champion racial and gender diversity within their organizations. These leadership qualities are critical to successfully leading businesses through the coronavirus pandemic, yet research has found that women leaders in senior management are 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19, with almost three in four citing burnout as a main reason.

While initiatives like virtual happy hours and gratitude circles can be beneficial to employee well-being, unless comprehensive solutions that target the underlying causes of burnout are implemented, these initiatives risk becoming just another item on women’s already overcrowded to-do list.

According to McKinsey’s report, the top reasons why women are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce are:

  • lack of flexibility at work
  • feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, or “always on”
  • housework and caregiving burdens due to COVID-19
  • worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic
  • difficulty sharing the challenges they are facing with their teammates or managers
  • feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work
  • feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work

Armed with the data supplied by the McKinsey & Company report and some additional research from Catalyst, we now have an opportunity and an obligation to support our women leaders more effectively through this time. Here are six suggestions to get you started:

1. Adjust Goals and Performance Expectations

According to the Women in the Workplace report, less than one third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic. And only half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations. This results in women leaders feeling like they’re missing the mark when they have to prioritize household responsibilities and can leave them on the fast-track to burnout, working at an unsustainable pace trying to juggle it all. During such a volatile time, where many businesses are struggling to survive amidst the chaos, you may feel pressure to lean on your team harder than ever simply to keep the business afloat. However, upholding unrealistic expectations that don’t take into consideration the challenges that many are facing – and women disproportionately so – only makes your team members feel undervalued and unrecognized for their contributions. If you haven’t already, examine your expectations of employees and identify the most important outcomes to move business objectives forward. Then, make sure expectations and priorities are clearly communicated to employees and ask them what support they need to make it happen.

2. Communicate Clearly and Openly

Many businesses are being forced to make tough decisions that may not be pleasant to share with employees, but it doesn’t help to skirt around difficult news or the impact for members of your organization. During times of crisis, open and honest communication is critical. According to McKinsey, when employees are surprised by decisions that have an impact on their work, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. Yet one in five employees have consistently felt uninformed or in the dark during COVID-19. The Catalyst report on COVID-19: Women, Equity, and Inclusion in the Future of Work highlights the importance of orienting employees in this disorienting time with a compelling vision and a credible roadmap that motivates people to achieve it. By being direct, open and honest, you control the narrative, build trust and are able to focus on solutions rather than leaving people to make their own assumptions.

3. Help Your Employees Re-Establish Work-Life Boundaries

One of the most common challenges reported by women leaders during this time (and one of the leading contributors to burnout) is the feeling that they always need to be “on”. To combat this, it’s essential for your organization to find ways to re-establish work-life boundaries for your employees who may fear being penalized if they were to implement them on their own. On a day-to-day level, this means setting clear and realistic guidelines around when workers are expected to be available for meetings and responsive to emails. This could also be through offering additional “COVID-19” days that allow workers to take a day off to recharge their batteries or to deal with childcare challenges. In order for these efforts to truly be effective, leaders must walk the talk. For example, if you say that employees are not expected to attend to work matters on the weekend, but you’re bombarding your direct reports with emails, they may feel pressured to work regardless.

4. Create Unique Solutions For Each Individual

Creating a company culture of flexibility is critical during this time, but no company-wide policy is going to be sufficient to combat the factors that are pushing women to leave the workplace. The pandemic has affected each person uniquely – some women may be mothers with young children at home while others may be caring for elderly parents. The McKinsey report found that Black women are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they were less likely to report that their manager has inquired about their workload or taken steps to ensure that their work-life needs are being met, and only about a third say their manager has fostered an inclusive culture on their team. As such, each employee needs to be worked with on an individual basis to co-create a solution that addresses their unique situation and empowers them to deliver results in a healthy, sustainable way.

During a recent HNS Women’s Leadership Development Roundtable on the topic of retaining female leaders, Ebony Taileur-David, Executive Director, Inclusion & Diversity and Human Resources Business Partner at Quest Diagnostics, shared with us that they empowered lab managers to “meet employees where they are”, resulting in flexibility for employees who could only work a few hours or needed to skip a shift altogether. This allowed them to retain skilled workers who were in high demand in the midst of a pandemic.

An added benefit is that when you make your team members feel supported and seen by management, they are more likely to feel connected to the work itself and report higher levels of job satisfaction.

5.Actively Combat the Motherhood Penalty

Research tells us that being seen in a caregiving role results in a reputational boost for men but leads to women being viewed as less competent and less committed to their jobs. For years, women have employed different tactics to circumvent this bias in the workplace, from not displaying family photos to avoiding discussions about childcare responsibilities. But in a world where the home has become the office and it’s all too easy for a curious toddler to wander into frame during a Zoom meeting, many women can no longer hide or minimize this part of their lives – and they shouldn’t have to! Create a company culture of open appreciation for the mothers in your organization, acknowledge the additional challenges they are facing, and show patience and understanding. The CEO of Verizon did just that when he sent an email to employees, reassuring them that seeing their children in the background and hearing their dogs bark was a treasured glimpse into their lives.

6. Create Opportunities for Employees to Share Honest Feedback

In a time of such uncertainty, where many fear being laid off or furloughed, women in your organization may be hesitant to ask for additional support or to voice concerns out of fear of negative repercussions. However, without full transparency from your team, you can’t get a true pulse on how well they’re coping and how effective your support efforts are.

Providing private channels for feedback, such as an anonymous survey, is a powerful way to learn about employee needs and gauge their level of stress. You can ask them how supported they feel, what additional resources they need, what the biggest challenges they’re facing are, or what initiatives have been the most helpful in supporting them through this time. Not only will this provide you with valuable information to help inform your future efforts, but it also sends a message to employees that you truly care about their input and want to provide them with a safe space to share it.

Even better is to create a space where employees feel they can speak candidly face-to-face. Maureen Solero, Vice President, Organization and Leadership Development at Nuvance Health, shared with us that her hospital system held listening sessions instead of mid-year performance discussions. The decision to find out how employees were doing instead of evaluating performance sent a clear message of caring and respect.

As the pandemic rages on, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can allow women leaders to continue working at an unsustainable pace and risk losing countless highly-skilled and capable workers, hurting not only women but also setting back gender equity efforts, business performance and the economy. Or, we can use this as an opportunity to reinvent our workplaces to support women through the challenges of the pandemic in the short-term, while also creating more flexible workplaces that empower women to bring their whole selves to work over the long-term. Which path will you choose?

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