COVID-19 vaccine appointments are now widely available in the U.S., and with higher vaccination rates come business plans to return remote workers to the office. As McKinsey pointed out in their 2020 study, many women ended up walking away from the workforce or taking an incredibly reduced role during the pandemic. The pandemic also changed workplace dynamics, as suddenly, there were no clear boundaries between the workplace and home.

The COVID-19 recession is being coined by some as the “shecession,” with most of the economic shock disproportionately impacting women. Female-dominated sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, were more likely to have been cut or scaled back during the pandemic. Women that were fortunate to continue their work from home reported spending an average of nearly 8 more hours a week during COVID-19 than men on their unpaid “second shift.” This resulted in nearly 3 million American women leaving the labor force over the past year.

The pandemic shed light on many things, one being the lack of policies that enable their employees to balance caregiving responsibilities with their work obligations. As the economy bounces back and jobs return, women are at risk of returning to careers with reduced hours, or being redirected to vacant positions for lower-skilled, and lower-paid employment. Employers must focus on stronger engagement on gender equality during the COVID-19 crisis and shecession recovery that promotes a better and more equitable workforce.

Employers can take three steps now to protect and promote equality as their staff begins its return to work plans:

• Promote women employees and provide flexibility. Collectively speaking, men tend to outnumber women in power positions in most organizations, such as in the c-suite and boardrooms. This gender imbalance sometimes escalates into a competition between women for what can be perceived as scarcity in the slots available for them to fill. Business leaders should take the post-COVID, pre-return to work period to reexamine the composition of existing leadership structures to determine how to help accelerate female employees on their career trajectory, including determining whether gender ratios are prohibiting women from rising to the top.

• Reconsider the org chart. The organization chart is essentially a military model. While it works well in certain types of setting, it’s fundamentally designed for a combat setting. Companies should review their org chart with an eye towards whether employees are empowered within that structure. People at the bottom of the hierarchy can feel less empowered or heard, and ultimately less valued. While the org chart may be necessary to help identify the channels for approvals, escalating issues, or handling crises, business leaders should review existing charts to determine whether they are also having negative effects on lower-level employee’s ability to move up through an organization, and ensure that for larger organizations that those at the bottom have multiple channels to turn to for support.

• Women still face consequences when acting “outside the norm.” There’s an uneven expectation that women should be more congenial when it comes to workplace interactions. When women step outside the stereotypical way of being, they often subconsciously become dangerous in the eyes of others whose expectations of women are that they act a certain way. While this isn’t something that organizations can fix single handedly, it’s certainly something that can be addressed. Fostering diversity pays off in the long run -- one study found that teams with more women made the team collectively smarter. When women are included as a part of the team, the result is a net positive benefit.

Gender stereotypes are certainly better than they were twenty years ago, but there’s a long way to go in supporting women looking to scale the career ladder and break the glass ceiling. Particularly in the post- COVID environment where many women are returning after being forced out of the workforce, businesses must be proactive in reexamining their pre-COVID workplace structures and determining whether there’s improvements that can be made to support female workers.

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is a practitioner lecturer of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, dean of students and alumni affairs, and director of the Center for Women in Leadership.


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