How companies can support female employees as they return to work

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The United States hasn’t seen unemployment levels this high since the Great Depression, but this time, it’s women who are left without jobs.

In April, 25 million Americans lost their jobs, but women were unemployed at a higher rate than men: the unemployment rate was 16.2% for women, compared to 13.5% for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than their male or childless peers, women have also taken on a bigger share of childcare and elder care duties. The challenges are adding a burden on women’s mental health: anxiety levels for working women have increased 52% since February, compared to 29% for their male counterparts, according to according to a May mental health index developed by Total Brain that is being shared to employers by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and One Mind at Work.

“It is no secret that women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” says Tanya Jansen, co-founder of compensation management provider beqom. “Efforts from businesses to create an equal future are needed more than ever.”

Read more: Coronavirus is pushing the gender gap even wider for working moms

As the country is reopening, the task of addressing these inequalities falls on employers, as many created a remote work environment without enough support for employees, says Kristen Liesch, co-CEO of strategic consulting company Tidal Equality.

“Organizations shifted to the work-from-home plan, and did it without a whole lot of consultation or mechanisms in place to hear from their staff,” Liesch says. “They haven't been able to mitigate the problems. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities of all kinds.”

In order to close these gaps, firms need to identify where they’re falling short as they make plans to return to work, Liesch says. She recommends having an outside consultant to speak with employees and advise management. Often, employees feel more comfortable discussing their challenges and needs with a neutral third party.

“The likelihood of [employees] sharing with real candor how difficult their life is right now and their ability to work is really low,” Liesch says. “If an organization really does desire to understand how things are going for their people, this may be the time to bring in a third party that can guarantee the anonymity of your staff.”

After listening to feedback and concerns from employees, companies should evaluate whether their internal policies support workplace equity. Liesch’s company, Tidal Equality, offers a program called Equity Sequence, a series of questions to help firms identify and address inequities in key decision-points like recruiting processes, event planning or product design.

“Unconscious bias training doesn't train the bias out of anyone,” Liesch says. “At the end of the day, there's a real opportunity for organizations to mitigate bias in their processes and systems and products and communications. You're able to uncover where bias might exist in that process, but also have the opportunity to understand ways to make it more equitable and more inclusive.”

For companies truly dedicated to making a lasting change to their equity practices, doing it publicly can communicate commitment to change. Last year, Citigroup published their gender pay gap, showing that female employees were paid 73% of what men were, at the median. They pledged to make adjustments for future pay cycles. Intel has also publicly disclosed diversity and representation data at their firm, with a goal to increase representation of women in technical roles to 40% and double the number of women in senior leadership, both by 2030.

These public announcements hold companies accountable and indicate a clear commitment to equity, says Jansen.

“Companies that take their commitment public, like Intel did, can help establish themselves as an employer that cares about its people and help move the needle on creating an equal and fair work environment for all,” says Jansen.

While the issues caused by coronavirus are far from over, employers should take the opportunity now to advocate for change both within their organzitions and at a federal policy level, says Tara Cookson, co-founder and director of feminist research consulting firm Ladysmith. She notes that while big firms like Starbucks and Google can provide benefits like on-site childcare, paid family leave and good healthcare, smaller firms can’t afford this quality of employee support. In Cookson’s eyes, employers should be advocating on behalf of their employees.

“[Change] needs to come at the state and at the national level and be applied to everybody if we're actually going to address COVID and have a recovery that leaves no one behind,” says Cookson.

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Gender issues Diversity and equality Coronavirus