This column is part of a Dallas Morning News opinion project outlining critical issues at stake as the Texas Legislature convenes. Find the full project here.
Business leaders confronted many difficult choices last year, including making health and safety decisions that may have felt out of their purview. Now they face another weighty decision, one that, luckily, can be guided by a clear business imperative.
Will we fight to keep women in the workforce?
This may seem like a question that has already been answered by decades of trailblazing women across industries. However, generations of hard-earned progress toward increased equity on the job is in jeopardy, as we learned while researching McKinsey’s sixth annual Women in the Workforce study. The impact of COVID-19 combined with the inflexible pace of work is, quite simply, unsustainable, and it is pushing an unprecedented number of women to leave their jobs. This will have dire consequences for the U.S. economy.
We found that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting careers or leaving the workforce because of the pandemic. For mothers, it’s 1 in 3. And for Black and Latina women, who are more likely to be their family’s sole breadwinner and primary provider of child care and housework, historical disadvantages in the workplace have increased, forcing impossible choices. Black women, for instance, are more likely than other employees to think about leaving the workforce due to safety and health concerns.
This exodus will hurt businesses and families across the nation. Here in Texas, roughly 60% of women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their households, according to a report from the Texas Women’s Foundation. In Dallas County, women have historically maintained higher workforce participation rates and owned more businesses than national averages. It’s easy to see why these departures threaten to devastate diversity gains and create an economic ripple that will be felt for years to come, likely even decades.
Our research, which draws from more than 40,000 employees’ experiences at more than 300 companies as well as interviews with human resource leaders, shows that now is a moment for action. We must choose between two paths: One path upholds the status quo of the pre-pandemic workplace expectations, to the detriment of diversity and the financial advantages it indisputably offers. The other path embraces new norms and more empathetic and flexible ways of working, acknowledging that when more women are in the workforce, economies grow, and growth is more important than ever.
The risk of losing diversity, losing allyship for women at all levels and losing an opportunity to evolve our workplaces for the better is more than just a steep cost to the fabric of society, it’s a huge financial risk for every business.
Fortunately, there are several steps companies can take immediately to help mitigate the scale and long-term impact of this potential regression, including:
Defining new norms: Many companies have failed to audit their productivity and performance expectations to match the profound changes happening in the world. Leaders should consider offering additional time off for recharging as well as establishing new etiquette for meetings and emails to help alleviate the always-on mentality that leads to high rates of burnout.
Other ways to help ease pressure to be always-on include establishing companywide days for video-free meetings, setting dedicated power hours for working time, adjusting email settings for delayed delivery on the weekends, and ensuring that leaders model good behavior about signing off and taking paid time off. This is especially helpful for mothers who are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an extra three or more hours a day on child care and housework.
Minimizing the potential for gender bias: Women fear harsher judgments from colleagues, a fact that only increased in 2020. Companies should directly address the impact of bias in their workforce, prioritize training, and track promotions and raises, as well as layoffs, by gender and race to ensure equity.
Going a step further, it will be imperative for companies to double down on inclusion efforts in our new remote workplace. Companies should consider ways to ensure all voices are heard such as defining a new standard for remote meetings and creating an inclusive monitor to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak. Further, companies can provide space for the informal microfeedback and coaching that would have happened organically. And lastly, assign new hires buddies who can help them navigate the company.
Investing in better support and communication: In addition to considering additional benefits, like paid time off, additional sick leave, flexible working arrangements or mental health resources, companies must ensure information is adequately shared with employees. One in five employees in our survey said they have felt uninformed during the pandemic. Leaders have a real opportunity to show more openness and build invaluable trust with all employees, but especially with those who are essential to the diversity reflected within their ranks.
Business leaders have faced unimaginable challenges these past months. Many now sit at a crossroads. They are moving beyond crisis stopgaps and defining a new path forward that likely looks vastly different from what anyone expected this time last year.
Charting the course means that every company with a vision for a prosperous and innovative future must actively choose to treat the sustainability of its diverse workforce with equal importance as its transformation in other areas, like the environment or technology. One without the others won’t be successful.
Economies the world over do not just benefit from women; they rely on women. And right now, they must choose to take action before years of progress are undone.
Kelly Ungerman is a senior partner with McKinsey and Co. in Dallas.
Alexis Krivkovich is a senior partner with McKinsey in San Francisco. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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