We’re looking at whether to make some bigger structural changes to scheduling norms, like company-wide flexibility, no-meeting Wednesdays, or no-meeting lunches.”

– CHRO, RETAIL INDUSTRY

This article was originally written for LeanIn Netherlands.

The news about women taking double or even triple shifts as they work from home and with daycares closed is no longer new. It is a problem and can push back what we’ve won in gender equality at work to more years back. What is new and has not been highlighted is that this situation we’re in is also an opportunity.

If companies act early, they can shape the workplace for women for the better and even achieve greater diversity faster than expected.

Women in the Workplace Report

This came from the “Women in the Workplace 2020” report, a comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. Launched in 2015 by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, the study is geared towards advancing diversity in the workplace. This year’s report opens with data containing COVID-19’s impact on women in the workplace and closes with suggested solutions to keep women at work.

Women in the Workplace is an annual study on the state of women in corporate America.

Six solutions to keep women

According to the report, there are six solutions that companies can apply right now to keep their talented women at work:

1. Make performance expectations realistic

I was chatting with one of my friends once who has a top-level leadership role in a big pharmaceutical company. She has two children at home and while she also has an au pair, she is mostly the one homeschooling her kids. Sometimes, she works until midnight just to get her job done. This is because while a lot of her bosses say that they can only imagine how hard it is for working parents, goals and deadlines have not been reset.

The report points out that a sustainable pace at work is essential for working women which may be translated to resetting goals, narrowing project scopes, or keeping the same goals with extended deadlines. Some companies even close for a few days after every quarter just to give their employees time to recharge.

2. Reset flexibility norms

Leaders can say they value flexibility at this time but it matters more if they walk the talk. Encouraging employees to set their own boundaries and not answer emails after office hours is a good thing but if your boss keeps on doing it, you are bound to mimic the behaviour.

Working women are more sensitive to this as they often get stigma at work that they can’t work as much as they want because their kids are at home. I know because I heard myself saying once during a video call, “Luckily, my son still sleeps in the afternoon so that I can work.” But parenting is work, so in the end, we work twice as hard!

3. Reassess performance criteria

I have never been a big believer of annual performance reviews where employees are given a grade at the end of every annual work cycle. Even Gallup Workplace agrees with me that they do more harm than good. It’s hard enough to remember what exactly took place three months ago. Imagine having an objective summary of what happened a year ago. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 2002 Awardee, mentioned in this TED Talk that we have two selves: an experiencing one and a remembering one. Which one is serving you during performance reviews?

Managers should reassess performance metrics set before the pandemic to make sure they are attainable. If they are not reassessed and are not met, have a real human conversation which may even increase productivity and help raise performance.

Having said that, most of the women in my network have received positive performance reviews for 2020 so kudos to that!

4. Minimize gender bias

Joan C. Williams mentioned in What Works for Women at Work that women with children face “higher performance standards, harsher judgment for mistakes, and penalties for being mothers and for taking advantage of flexible work options”. A bias that the pandemic may have only exacerbated. During Covid-19, these biases show up when “making judgmental comments about young children playing in the background on video calls or when co-workers assume, consciously or unconsciously, that women are less committed to their jobs; or when managers are evaluating women in performance reviews”.

To mitigate these biases, bias trainings may be in order. LeanIn offers the “50 Ways to Fight Bias” training online at this time.

5. Adjust office policies to better support employees

Does your company offer mental health support, health checks and parenting resources? Do you have an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for parents? Some companies even offer paid time-off for parents just so they can have some breathing space between homeschooling and working from home. Sometimes, support does not have to be official. Having a conversation group for parents would probably already help.

If you offer all the support above, make sure your employees know about them. According to the report, there is a gap between what organisations offer and what employees know which leads us to the importance of the last tip.

6. Strengthen employee communication

Of all these solutions, this one is my favorite. As a corporate communication professional, I truly believe in branding from the inside and taking care of employees. They are an organisation’s first stakeholders. What would a boss do without them?

Especially now that we are all working from home, a robust employee engagement programme deserves top-level support. Communicate with empathy, communicate often. Make them feel valued! It costs nothing to ask, “How are you really doing at this time?” So go ask!

What can you do?

Which of these actions are you going to take?

If you are a top manager in your company, take the data from the report to inform the changes necessary in your office policies and programs to keep valuable talent in your workplace.

In whichever level you are at your company, make sure to educate yourself about gender bias. Keep colleagues in check when they make biased remarks about male and female colleagues’ commitment while working and parenting from home.

References

Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work; Shelley J. Correll et al., “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?”; Heejung Chung and Tanja van der Lippe, “Flexible Working, Work-Life Balance, and Gender Equality: Introduction.”

Kahneman, D. (2010) “The riddle of experience vs memory”, TED https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory/transcript

McKinsey and Company (2020). Women in the Workplace 2020. Retrieved from https://womenintheworkplace.com

Sutton, R. (2019). “More harm than good: the truth about performance reviews.” Gallup Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/249332/harm-good-truth-performance-reviews.aspx