Advancing Gender Equity as You Lead out of the Pandemic

As of January 2021, nearly 3 million women had dropped out of the workforce. The “Shecession” has naturally led many to a focus on recapturing pre-pandemic levels of female engagement in the job market. But why settle for merely recapturing what you already had when your organization can do more? Why not use the efficacy of remote work and the priorities of high-talent women seeking employment to reset your company’s gender diversity and inclusion at all leadership levels? The authors offer three ways to do this. First, challenge gender-normative assumptions around flexible work by communicating that that flexible work arrangements are for all employees (not just women) and encouraging men and male leaders to participate. Second, guard against work-from-home stigma and a two-class culture by routinely analyzing pay and promotion rates for in-office and remote workers to ensure transparency and prevent disparities from creeping in. Finally, hire and promote leaders with 21st-century skills, including authenticity, inclusiveness, humility, and empathy.

Although the “Shecession” has naturally led many to a focus on recapturing pre-pandemic levels of female engagement in the job market, we believe this approach amounts to a failure of imagination and a profound missed opportunity.

Why settle for merely recapturing what you already had when your organization can do more? Why not use this moment to pivot fully toward flexibility, transparency, and innovation in the way your company does work? And why not use the efficacy of remote work and the priorities of high-talent women seeking employment to reset your company’s gender diversity and inclusion at all leadership levels?

As of January 2021, nearly 3 million women had dropped out of the workforce compared to the year before, signifying a 33-year low in women’s participation in the labor market. In February, McKinsey and Oxford Economics estimated that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024. But this estimate failed to consider how surges in Covid-19 variants may further forestall access to childcare and in-person school. (And women — far more than men — have been forced to choose between caregiving obligations and career opportunities.) The sluggish recovery in women’s employment was confirmed by evidence that 97% of women who returned to the labor force in June had not found jobs by July (versus only 12% for men); unemployment remains highest for Black and Latina women.

What does all this evidence indicate? The workplace is about to witness an epic war for talent. Women represent at least half of those at the top of the curve on IQ, emotional intelligence, creativity, and leadership skill. While there are nuances in the distribution by sex in these key areas of business performance, women account for at least 50% of the most talented part of the workforce. Companies with more women — especially more women in leadership — perform better. The power and performance of female leadership has been particularly visible around the globe during the pandemic. On aggregate, countries with women at the helm have outperformed those led by men.

Organizations that establish themselves as top destinations for female employees by taking stands on gender and racial equality, leading on flexible and remote work arrangements, transparently pursuing equal pay, and demonstrating creative solutions to quality childcare will win the war, while companies that cling to 20th-century workplace norms will disappear. Never has there been an easier time to capitalize on a competitor’s tone deafness and poor agility.

To do this, organizations need to move quickly and proactively. Here are our top recommendations for creating an economic transformation that sees women participate equally and equitably in the labor market.

Challenge gender-normative assumptions around flexible work.

A significant proportion of women are looking for companies that offer (and honor) flexible, remote, and hybrid work schedules. Offering generous flexible work policies that enable more women to stay in the workforce is an essential step in reducing gender inequities — but these must be accompanied by changes to existing work cultures and gender norms. Extending more flexible work arrangements to all workers — not just women — can disrupt associated stigma by avoiding assumptions about who will want to use flexible work arrangements. Gender-role attitudes have increasingly become more egalitarian with the influx of Millennials into the workforce, and companies need policies to adapt to help employees thrive. Ensure that written policies and communications from frontline managers reinforce messaging that flexible work options are available to everyone and avoid assumptions that these are “women’s” programs.

What’s more, men, including male leaders, must participate in flexible and remote work programs. Although many men face a femininity stigma when using flexible and remote work options, we encourage men-as-allies for gender equity to help destigmatize flexible work and family leave by requesting and using these options, both as a way to support their own partners and families, and as a means of destigmatizing flexible work for women and junior men.

Guard against work-from-home stigma and a two-class culture.

Unless we are vigilant, remote work options may inadvertently widen gendered pay and promotion disparities. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom has warned that if remote work options are used predominantly by women while men are remain mostly in the office accruing face time, and if managers don’t change traditional conceptions of the ideal worker in the office five days a week, we stand to set women further behind in pay equity.

Remote and hybrid work is only a win if it doesn’t perpetuate a work-from-home stigma, fostering negative perceptions toward workers who don’t work in the office every day. Leaders and managers must understand that work is something we accomplish, not a place we go. Companies must routinely analyze pay and promotion rates for in-office and remote workers to ensure transparency and prevent disparities from creeping in. Set performance expectations and evaluation criteria for remote workers to reflect how work is performed differently in the remote environment. Managers also need to consider new routines for communication that ensure equitable visibility in all work modalities.

Additionally, companies should highlight flexible and remote work arrangements in job postings and recruitment materials. Women (and men) are more likely to apply for jobs (and stay longer) with remote and flexible work arrangements. Businesses can normalize and equalize these work arrangements with office work by offering equitable pay, benefits, and promotion opportunities. Highlighting signing bonuses, training for new skills and qualifications, and promotion opportunities in job advertisements and company promotional media are some of the many ways companies are promoting the new world of work. Remote and flexible work arrangements effectively open a treasure trove of untapped diverse talent in labor markets previously unavailable based on location.

Hire and promote leaders with 21st-century skills.

Actively recruiting women and promoting flexible work arrangements won’t be enough if frontline managers — who are predominantly men — remain actively or passively resistant. Companies must hire people, especially women, who can articulate the business case and the moral imperative for full gender balance and equity in the company, and promote those who exude authenticity, inclusiveness, humility, and empathy. Favor managers with a track record of onboarding and promoting diverse talent. Can they listen deeply and forge trusting relationships using remote technology? There is evidence that remote workers are less lonely, more integrated with teams, and more successful when their managers are deliberate communicators, often expressing encouragement, support, and appreciation.

Make no mistake, enacting these changes will be hard. But smart leaders will frame this as a challenge, not a burden; a competitive opportunity, not an accommodation to women. These changes constitute radical organizational change, something guaranteed to provoke resistance and something well worth the effort.

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