Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, up to two million women in corporate America have contemplated leaving the workforce, according to a new McKinsey study.
Working from home has placed added pressure on business leaders to identify the obstacles to workplace equality in the new virtual ‘office’, and to identify the women in their workforces most impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 threatens to stall progress towards workplace gender equity and has exacerbated inequalities that have curtailed women’s careers for years.
Juggling work and home
With commute times removed and added flexibility and control over working hours, the remote working model induced by the pandemic offered the chance for a healthier work-life balance. But a year into working from home, that’s not been the reality for everyone.
Mothers have felt the negative impact of remote working since females take on the responsibility of domestic and childcaring duties more so than their male partners, according to a Harvard Business Review finding. The systematic gender norms that continue to pervade in the home mean that women are more likely to have homeschooled their children during COVID-19.
Burnout is more likely, with working from home creating a lack of separation between life at work and life at home. McKinsey found that mothers of children under 10 who are in dual-career couples are twice as likely as men in the same situation to spend more than five additional hours a day on household responsibilities than they did pre-pandemic.
“Working from home will challenge anyone who serves two roles—parent and employee—because it requires people to balance multiple competing goals at once,” notes Gráinne Fitzsimons (pictured right), professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Remote work has seen racial inequality prevail, and Black women are suffering during the pandemic more than their non-Black colleagues. The same McKinsey report revealed that they are three times more likely than non-Black women to have reported the death of a loved one as a recent challenge impacting their work.
Gendered performance standards
Women also often deal with being held to higher performance standards than men. These differences in performance expectations risk slowing down women’s progression through the corporate ranks.
“Performance reviews present an organizational challenge at the best of times. Bias is very apt to contaminate subjective evaluation, and most performance reviews–even if they use quantitative measurement—are heavily subjective,” notes Gráinne.
Employers can minimize unconscious biases by engaging in diversity training and asking women and marginalized groups how they think performance reviews discriminate against them to inform this training. Data plays a central role in making these evaluation processes fairer.
“Businesses should assess their company data to see whether they have issues with a high turnover of their female employees or whether they aren’t promoting many women,” advises Randall Peterson (pictured right), professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
Once organizations have identified any problems within their data, they need to figure out whether performance measures are assessing what they're designed to measure, such as quality of work, he explains.
Forging a virtual presence
In the physical office space, female employees have long had to work hard to make themselves seen, and their voices heard.
“A cultural bias exists where the picture we have in our minds of what a leader looks like is mostly male. And we perceive women as in the support roles,” comments Connson Locke (pictured right), professorial lecturer in management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the author of a new book, Making Your Voice Heard.
Gender inequality has made its way into the virtual meeting room: 45% of female business leaders report that it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. The problem is exacerbated by the virtual workspace limiting visual cues like eye contact and body language, which can help employees gauge when it’s the right time to speak.
However, the online workplace also creates some advantages for women. “Often, women have biologically softer voices in in-person meetings, but in the virtual workplace women can use headphones to help amplify their voices, as well as lighting to boost their presence,” suggests Connson.
There’s also an added benefit in that everyone has similar sized displays in online meetings, explains Connson. This means that women do not have to worry about higher-ranking employees dominating the physical space as much within a virtual office.
The virtual office does pose challenges to gender equality in the way a physical office does, but women can use the space to their advantage and invest in tools to enhance their confidence, tackling the office hierarchies typical within physical meetings.
Being a ‘manbassador’ to women
True equality in the workplace can only be achieved through efforts by both male and female employees. “It’s vital for women to be supported, mentored, and promoted by male allies and sponsors in addition to female ones,” notes Jenny Chu (pictured right), senior lecturer in accounting and academic director of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.
There are three key ways men can act as allies to help tackle workplace gender inequality. First, it’s crucial to avoid eclipsing women’s perspective by speaking on their behalf. “The first way men can help women is to listen to them about what the challenges and issues are,” notes Randall from London Business School. Randall has also served on the UN Women UK board and advised employers on how to improve their diversity.
Within the virtual office, men cannot connect with female employees in the same way as they would in the physical office. Going that extra mile to invite female employees for a virtual chat to find out how their doing provides women with an opportunity to speak about any anxieties or stressors they’re experiencing.
Pushing a supportive culture, and one that promotes and identifies the importance of men in the fight against gender inequality, is also key. Allies can achieve social change within the workplace—it's not just up to managers to influence working women's situation.
“Everybody can take action within the office or even within the domestic space. Change really has to come as much from the bottom as it does from the top,” comments Randall.
Working from home will remain in place across many organizations post-COVID-19. So, business leaders and allies—regardless of gender—should ensure they’re doing all that they can to achieve gender equity for women within the virtual and physical office.
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