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The Pandemic’s Equity Impact, Part 2: The CEO Opportunity

This two-part series looks at the impact of the pandemic on women’s careers and workplace equity. Part one spotlights recent findings and recommendations. Part two offers actionable insights and practical advice for leaders. 

The first part of this series leveraged research from the Rutgers Center for Women in Business (CWIB) to envision the impact of COVID-19 on women. While hardly a positive experience for anyone trying to navigate pandemic conditions, CWIB found a potential silver lining for women’s careers, particularly those who are mid-career: the benefit of increased support from partners and employers. 

With regard to current gender gaps, Adam Feigenbaum, a member of the CWIB advisory board, offered, “CWIB believes that while most CEOs – which data shows are predominantly white and male – agree there is a problem; they just don’t think it’s their problem.

To do so would require a CEO to outwardly acknowledge inequities in their business, opening oneself to at the very least reputational risk, and perhaps fear of financial or even legal risk at a corporate level. As a result, business leaders lean on HR to put in policies and processes to protect their business above all else. These are not conditions for progress – they reinforce the status quo as the standard for success is just keeping out of trouble.”

The Business Imperative

Knowing that women prosper when they have the right resources, consider what it takes to deliver more equitable experiences – and why this hasn’t been the case all along. It’s well-documented that women represent a large, highly skilled, and extraordinarily capable talent pool often underutilized.

The recent exodus of women leaving the workforce, at a rate four times more than men, amplifies that point. However, historically, diversity and inclusion initiatives have been HR’s responsibility, but what’s happening now, Feigenbaum says, is less of an HR issue and more of a CEO opportunity. 

He continued, “More progressive companies will think about this surplus of talent that’s available, specifically from women, that is beginning to go unutilized because they’re leaving the workforce. And it is incumbent upon CEOs, not just HR representatives, but CEOs to identify this as a potential competitive advantage, an inefficiency in the market that they could then leverage and focus on.

As more CEOs understand this, they will proactively transform their culture and policies, with the help of HR, to attract and engage women as a priority will earn themselves the talent advantage organizations needs to thrive.” 

 

The Redefinition of Resources

The path forward involves several factors, starting with a solid business case, buy-in from senior leaders, and alignment back to HR. If policies and processes designed to protect the organization are what led to this juncture, then develop policies and processes that safeguard workers, too.  

Lisa Kaplowitz, the center’s executive director, said, “We see two sides of this issue. One is to remove barriers, structural barriers, systemic barriers, and the other is to empower women with the confidence and skills necessary to succeed as business leaders.” 

Specific to HR, the barriers Kaplowitz referred to exist throughout the talent lifecycle, from job descriptions that use words that prevent women from applying to certain jobs to inflexible practices for families and caregivers that cause women to stop working. 

Recognizing such challenges, Kaplowitz explained that CWIB is piloting new programs, including one that offers women mid-career mentoring. So far, she revealed, the response to sessions such as “Positioning Yourself for Promotions and Performance Reviews Virtually” has been incredibly positive, with measurable results.

During that particular event, participants were polled about their intent to ask for a raise or a promotion in the next six months. At the outset, 38 percent were thinking about it. By the end, 67 percent said they would. While just one example, Kaplowitz makes the point that, “When you see something that powerful in 55 minutes, it speaks to the impact that we’re making quickly.” 

 

The Future of Work (is Female)

Kristina Durante, the center’s director of research, commented, “One thing I stress when I talk about our research is that we need to be responsible for the conversation. Now that we’ve had this experience, now that we see what’s going on, let’s turn it into a positive and keep talking about it. Especially if that helps get the CEO or leadership team members to buy-in.” 

The pandemic’s strain is real for everyone. But as the labor data indicates, this is especially true for women. Without action, the workforce will lose a substantial talent pool, set to influence productivity and profitability for the foreseeable future. That goes beyond anything that exists today. It requires a rethinking of what work looks like and how it operates. 

Whether a small business or enterprise organization, HR and senior leaders need to advocate for their women workers by providing support for work-life overlap, offering increased flex time or leave options, promoting engagement and wellbeing, and ultimately, encouraging advancement.

Feigenbaum reiterated that the evidence is already out there, “If we’re thinking about it, this is in the best of interest of the workers as well as the business. It’s in everyone’s best interest to create and drive cultures that promote workforce diversity. That’s how organizations win time and time again.” 

 

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