Of striking significance was the staggering loss of women’s jobs in February 2021’s employment report—roughly 80% of the 346,000 workers leaving the U.S. labor force in January 2021 were women. The steep loss was especially detrimental to women of color, who disproportionately work in industries that were hit hard by the pandemic, including education, healthcare, service industries, and retail. And according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, COVID-19 is likely to result in the gender wage gap growing by a staggering five percentage points.
But not all current news for U.S. women is abysmal. Promising that gender equity would be at the forefront of the new administration’s priorities, the White House recently announced creation of the Gender Policy Council. As part of its role, the council will work directly with every government agency to ensure that women’s priorities and advancing gender equity are considered part of a sound policy strategy.
In this time of dramatic and rapid change, organizations can similarly work to evaluate their policies, procedures, and decision-making structures to ensure support of gender equity. Preparing for the post-COVID economy requires that business leaders consider whether or not there is adequate representation in the leadership structures of their organizations to truly represent the employees they are set up to serve. Leaders can take the following steps to evaluate their existing practices and determine whether the structures in place truly meet the needs of their employees and customers as they work to return to normalcy.
As the world works toward making COVID-19 a thing of the past with the rollout of vaccinations, the seismic shifts in what the U.S. once considered “business as usual” have created an opportunity to rethink a better way to approach the future workforce.
Recognize the power dynamics in place. Harvard Business Review recently published an article that ran contrary to the advice many women are given: that “imposter syndrome” is a psychological phenomenon and by adopting a confident attitude, these feelings of not belonging can be put to the wayside. Instead, the article calls for a close examination of the systems of discrimination and abuses of power inherent in the modern work world, and the difficulties women (and especially women of color) face in navigating these spaces. Workplaces must take an unbiased and realistic view of the existing power structures in place and assess whether they are reflective or welcoming of diversity.
Ensure women have a seat on the board. The number of women sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies increased dramatically in 2019, with women accounting for 44% of new board appointments. Yet while this increase is encouraging, women remain statistically underrepresented on Fortune 500 boards. Research shows the value that women bring to the organization when they serve as members of the board, including improved financial performance and increased customer and employee satisfaction. With COVID-19 pulling many women out of the workplace, leaders must not lose sight of the importance of ensuring female representation in board appointments.
Establish processes for board committee assignments to amplify minority voices. Finally, organizational leaders must recognize the impact that in-group/out-group dynamics can have on women’s ability to be appointed to board positions in the first place. While external pressure has increased demand to appoint females to board positions, one study found that the strategy of adding board seats to increase the number of women serving on a board—in contrast to women filling seats vacated by men—had a potential negative consequence. Women whose seats were added were much less likely to serve on major board committees in comparison to women who filled the seat formerly held by a male director. Organizations must establish a robust process for governance training and ensure there is a pipeline of senior female management talent. Doing so will clear pathways to guarantee that talent is recognized and rewarded.
2020 was a time of major structural change for the U.S. as businesses closed, individuals moved their workplaces to their homes, and some left the workforce entirely in order to care for others. As the world works toward making COVID-19 a thing of the past with the rollout of vaccinations, the seismic shifts in what the U.S. once considered “business as usual” have created an opportunity to rethink a better way to approach the future workforce.
By creating structures to ensure that women not only have a seat at the table, but that their perspectives are entwined into the decision-making process, we can make strides toward creating a better, more inclusive post-pandemic workplace.