How do we support women in their career post-pandemic? As a working mother, I have a love/hate for the summer holidays. I love the idea of being with the kids and having lots of fun but I hate all of the sibling arguments, constant requests for food and trying to juggle all of my work.
Admittedly, this year feels a little different. On the one hand, it’s so much easier because last year was so tough. I am proud of my resilience, if I could get through a year of lockdown learning along with working, then I feel like six weeks is a breeze!
On the other hand, I am exhausted. I haven’t had a break in almost two years and the holidays aren’t much of a break as the person who does all of the planning, packing and 80% of the entertaining!
I am not alone. In addition to working, women continue to perform the majority of duties within the home as well. This was true even before the pandemic with some research suggesting that we spend an average of an extra two hours a day caring for the home and the children - and that’s assuming that we have a partner.
A UK study found that mothers are more likely by 47% to have lost their jobs and more likely to have had their hours cut and been furloughed than their male partners. With lockdown learning and spending more time at home over the last year or so this is having a detrimental effect on women’s careers. So many of us are exhausted, feeling like we have lost all motivation, self-confidence and in some cases, our identity.
This loss of women in the workplace not only sets the path towards gender equity backwards, but it also creates a gap where those women’s unique skills, knowledge and experience was. McKinsey reports that senior-level women, “are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19.”
COVID-19 has been proof that we are all more adaptable and resilient than we ever thought possible — we’ve attended virtual conferences, reinvented face-to-face research methods, all while figuring out the minutiae of running a Zoom call. Some of us have been doing that all while teaching, feeding, and otherwise attending to children and loved ones. Go us! As we start to negotiate out of the pandemic, one way that companies can adapt to the needs of all of their employees is to refresh policies around caregiving and parental leave.
Managing expectations around flexibility
For me, the pandemic highlighted that we all need flexibility around our work. As someone who is self-employed, I had to create that flexibility myself, which was a steep learning curve! In looking at my own experience and that of many of my clients I am grateful for the opportunity to work flexibly, even though it felt hard at the time.
What are we to do now? While many employers are offering their employees the ability to work remotely a few days a week it is only one part of the puzzle. There also needs to be more support for flexible working hours and flexible expectations. As leaders, we need to understand how to provide greater flexibility in our workday. In my opinion, there is no reason to say that working from home doesn't work- millions of people proved it can be done over the last year.
It’s important to recognise that not everyone wants to work from home (and many can't) and not everyone who wants flexible work is a parent and/or female. As leaders, we need to model the use of these policies for ourselves and every one of our employees. This will reduce the shame and guilt for those who need the flexibility and squash the idea that flexible working is designed for people who don’t work as hard, not to mention helping eliminate presenteeism!
I have a hope that the increased flexibility, a positive side effect of the pandemic will help create a new era of life-work balance for everyone.
Creating open conversations
Whilst I took the kids to the park this morning I chatted with my friend about September. I am intending to take a couple of days off when the kids go back in that first week. I will have child-free time where I could work and finish up a project (which is what my friend is planning) but I would rather spend that time refreshing myself for when I get back to work.
As leaders, we can make assumptions about what our employees need. If we recognise that our employees are overwhelmed with duties at home we might assume they don’t want to go for a promotion because they don’t want the extra responsibility. Or we might assume that a virtual quiz might provide a welcome social release when in reality the employee would rather spend that child-free time doing some self-development.
There is a solution: open conversations. As employees, we need to be open as to what we want and as leaders, we need to ask our employees what they need e.g.
- What do you want to be involved in right now?
- What do you need to help you grow your career and balance your life and work?
- What does flexibility look like for you?
- What would help you make an impact and feel valued?
These conversations don’t need to wait until review/appraisal time, they can and should happen in the moment. This ensures that changing needs and preferences are addressed before it’s too late.
The pandemic, as well as presenting countless challenges has also presented opportunities to emerge as a kinder society. Supporting women in the workplace is just one variable but it’s an important one. If we are able to maximise our own contributions and those of our employees we progress towards gender equity and help ourselves reap the benefits in the future.