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Achieving An Equal Future for Women in a COVID-19 World

Woman looking at computer screen

This year, the theme for International Women's Day was Women in Leadership: Achieving An Equal Future in a COVID-19 World. It takes more than a day for this focus to become a reality, especially after a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted women in the workplace. The latest Transform Talent podcast tackled the “shecession” topic, and how organizations can help women regain footing to achieve equality.  

Women’s equality affects everyone  

Female job loss rates were about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates globally during the COVID-19 crisis, according to McKinsey and Company, along with a 70% decrease in part-time jobs in that first three months. That translates into about a third of women in the U.S. are now thinking about either leaving the workforce or downshifting their career. That has consequences for the economy, according to Amy Smyth, head of the European Center of Excellence for Career Management at Right Management, part of Talent Solutions. “If we're thinking about the long-term health of our economy globally, working women in Europe and North America contribute a huge amount, between 35 and 45% of a country's GDP,” she said. “So if we don't actually address these issues about women's employment, all of us, men and women, will be the poorer for it.”  

Understanding the root cause

Why aren't there more women in senior roles? According to Brendan Plessis, EVP Sompo International and mentor to Right Management’s Advance Program, “The key reason is looking at working patterns associated with motherhood, and when women have children, they're much more likely to take on the bulk of childcare and responsibilities and therefore require flexible working arrangements. This could tie me through to part-time roles and in fact, an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that once you are on reduced hours, it is actually very unlikely that you will progress in terms of wages or promotion. You simply get stuck."

Employers can address this situation by making it easier for part-time or formerly part-time employees to advance. “This could be by making more senior jobs explicitly available to part-time. It could be by having more standard, flexible working practices either advertised or encouraged or implemented and then making job shares easier and more attractive too would help.”

Actively sponsor women  

Plessis discusses the importance of sponsorship and how it differs from mentorship. “Mentors may act as a sounding board and make women feel more comfortable but they do not necessarily actually help them get ahead. The sponsor is more personally involved. That's about the mentee's next career steps. The sponsors are typically well-respected individuals, have large networks to help with hiring or career decisions, they look to develop talent and help women get promoted. They have open conversations, help address how work gets done, and the way performance is measured.”  

To help women progress into leadership positions, organizations need to go beyond mentorship networks and actively support promotions. “I found that even women with a really strong orientation towards achievement, that doesn't mean they have a strong orientation towards proactive career management,”  Smyth said. “I remember reading a study which I was absolutely amazed at but 50% of female CEOs didn't consider being a CEO until someone told them they had it in them.”  

Believe in your worth

Smyth shared some U.S. research that showed that women who didn't negotiate their first salary stand to lose more than $500,000 by age 60. “So there is a cost to it and women who consistently negotiate, they can add up to $1,000,000 onto their salary for the lifetime of employment. So for all the women out there, there is a cost to not asking and when you know the value of it, just that bit of discomfort that you might have in that meeting could really mean something in your career over your lifetime.”

Pay attention to language  

Smyth shares an example of getting emails addressed to “Gentlemen,” even when women were part of the team. The language used in an organization has an impact on perceptions and reality. “Even very simple things like replacing a hostess with a flight attendant, for instance, makes it much easier for either gender to really imagine themselves in that role,” Smyth said. “That has real consequences.”  

The sooner organizations make changes, the faster they will see the impact. It’s important to move beyond International Women’s Day and continue to make progress, day by day and year by year.