If Companies Don’t Act, Women’s Leadership in the Post-Pandemic Workforce Could Suffer

It’s no doubt the pandemic has affected everyone in one way or another. 

But women have faced a unique set of challenges. In addition to work, many women have been tasked with the added responsibility of being homeschool teachers and full-time caregivers during lockdown. 

It should come as little surprise, then, that more women are opting out of the workforce than men. In the last year, or between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 2.3 million U.S. women over the age of 20 left the workforce, compared with 1.8 million of their male counterparts, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

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There’s no single cause for this. Some women, after losing their jobs during the pandemic, did not look for new work or couldn’t find it. Others, straddling the burdens of child rearing and other family obligations while day care centers and schools remain closed, voluntarily left the workforce. 

“It’s been very, very clear for me to see that the pandemic really did and is still heavily and disproportionately — affect women,” said Emma Grede, chief executive officer and cofounder of Good American, an apparel and accessories brand founded by Grede and Khloé Kardashian. “Not everyone was aware of, kind of, the double duty that a lot of the mums were pulling, with homeschooling. If push comes to shove, most women are going to have to put their children before their job.”

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But it’s not just mothers who are facing unique challenges during the pandemic. Women everywhere have had to adjust to new obstacles in a remote world. 

We’re starting to see women in senior leadership ranks opt out or fail. So the question is, why is that?

Grede joined other female leaders virtually including Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer for North America beauty and personal care at Unilever; Roseann Lynch, executive vice president and chief people officer at Ralph Lauren, and Rea Ann Silva, founder and CEO of Beautyblender — in a conversation with Footwear News executive editor Katie Abel — during a session titled “C-suite Women Speak” to discuss the new trials and challenges women are faced with today.

“We’re starting to see women in senior leadership ranks opt out or fail. So the question is, why is that?” Lynch posed. “Women take on an enormous burden of care, for their homes, for their jobs, for their lives. And how are the conditions in the workplace suited to accommodate for that?”

The answer is, at many companies, they may not be.

“We’ve been living and operating in a construct that’s not necessarily designed for women to be successful,” she continued. “We have to break those barriers and create new constructs that allow women to thrive.” 

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Curated Support Will Be Key

Of course, that is easier said than done. Companies and brands can start by offering female employees support and resources specifically catered to their needs. 

Good American, for one, has forums for mothers. “They can share stories; they can share tips,” Grede explained. “They could talk about what they’re doing to get through it.”

The CEO added that companies can also do right by recognizing the current circumstances their female workforce may be facing and sharing their stories with everyone.   

“Acknowledgement goes a really, really long way,” she said. “[We’re] just letting the rest of the organization know, who perhaps don’t have children, that this is happening.

The same goes for normalizing women’s manifold roles, Eggleston Bracey said, “so we’re not uncomfortable when our child appears on a Zoom call. Or, if we have a meeting over lunch hour, we hear the noise from when the kids are on break and we’re okay with that so it becomes a part of the culture. Talking about it takes some of the pressure off. So we don’t feel like on top of a double and triple duty that we have the discomfort in our day job of being embarrassed by the home environment.” 

Continue to Hire Women. And Support Their Success.

Creating space for women, and women of color, to lead isn’t just about hiring them for the job, but making sure they’re adequately supported in the roles they take on. Companies, Lynch said, should not just be “checking boxes” when they’re talking about parity.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is putting someone in a job because they fit a certain requirement of parity achievement,” she said. “We have to make sure people are ready once that job opens, once we put them in that job.”

The emphasis, Eggleston Bracey added, should be on long-term development and providing support for career advancement. 

“Oftentimes, we think the prize is the hire or the role,” she said. “But the real prize is success in that role. It’s beyond the hiring or the promotion. It’s about the support that goes along with it.”

One way companies can achieve this is to encourage women to have mentors and sponsors — people in leadership roles who believe in the potential of their female colleagues — at all points along their careers. 

“You really need those people who will go out and bat for you, who will pick up the phone…without being asked,” Grede said. “People who will foster your path, make those introductions where you need them. That’s so important and I often find that men can be very, very good at doing that and it doesn’t happen always in the same way, necessarily, with women. 

“In my career, the big differences, or the big leaps, have come when someone really put their neck out and introduced me to somebody that they’re working with and literally sponsored me,” she added. 

I don’t know that women are more equipped or better equipped to lead during times of great change. But we’re certainly just as equipped as any man.

Parity and Partnership

Reaching gender parity among corporate leadership means men and women need to consider each other allies. 

“It is always so hard to not fall into a trap of, ‘What makes women better leaders than men? Or, different?’” Lynch said. “Because we certainly need each other. Many of us — women who have achieved seniority and positions of leadership — have been mentored by men. And men have been their allies and their coaches. And we need men to be allies and coaches for women.”

Silva pointed out it takes a diverse team of people to create anything successful. 

Further, diversity and inclusion — and working together — is not about comparing men’s and women’s abilities and determining which is better, but rather recognizing individual strengths, Grede said.  

“I don’t know that women are more equipped or better equipped to lead during times of great change. But we’re certainly just as equipped as any man,” she said. “I find that the default mode of women — especially in my business — is to part with their own ego and to think about the customer before anything else. That ends up being a superpower. That’s why I like to surround myself with smart women.”

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