How should your company respond to gender inequality driven by work-from-home policies?
Over the past few months, life has been upended for just about everyone on the planet due to COVID-19. But in many cases, women have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic as the pressures of managing work and increased domestic responsibilities during shelter-in-place have seemed insurmountable.
For many women, including myself, the increase in home-related obligations that were previously shared with other parties (like childcare) have had a huge impact on our work lives (in addition to our sanity). According to a recent study conducted by our strategic partner, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), women are spending roughly 65 hours a week (up from 35 hours pre-pandemic) on childcare and household tasks. This is compared to men who reported 50 hours a week (up from 25 hours pre-pandemic) on similar responsibilities.
This imbalance could not have come at a worse time. In the beginning of 2020, women held more U.S. jobs than men for the first time in nearly a decade, a statistic that led economists to believe that labor market dynamics were tilting in favor of women. Now that the pandemic is increasingly blurring the lines between work and home life, the limited gains we have seen in the fight for workplace equality may be threatened as women are more likely to have to choose between earning a much-needed income and providing essential care and support at home.
The stressors of long-term work-from-home and workplace inequality are impacting all women, not just women with families. A recent Harvard Business Review article poses an interesting perspective on women’s careers and access to informal networks and critical projects. The article describes that while working from home (WFH) can seem like the “big equalizer,” women may be inadvertently pushed out of the business sphere. Access to informal coaching, organic discussions, break-out meetings, and other forms of in-office networking can all be affected by many women’s home life duties. Additionally, if we are working remotely at companies largely led by men, will unconscious bias creep in when it comes to granting the next great opportunity at your company? If we believe in the similarity principle, combined with the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that many face when working remotely, it’s possible that long-term WFH will significantly impact workplace inequality.
The limited gains we have seen in the fight for workplace equality may be threatened as women are more likely to have to choose between earning a much-needed income and providing essential care and support at home.
How do we better support and promote women in a virtual environment? Our People and Organization team at B Capital Group has been working with our portfolio companies on some of the following programs.
1. Childcare and education support: A big trend when many organizations moved to a virtual environment was rolling out emergency back-up childcare for their employees, such as Care@Work, the employee benefits division of Care.com. This is a generous and affective in the short term but has proven complicated and costly as remote working persists. Alternatively, employers are embracing concierge services like Cariloop and Wellthy to develop a long-term care plan. To address kids’ remote learning needs, companies like Outschool are being offered as a benefit.
2. Flexible hours: According to a recent survey by SHRM, small organizations (1–99 employees) are more than twice as likely as large organizations (500+ employees) to offer childcare accommodations to employees who request them. Many companies within our portfolio are formalizing policies to accommodate flexible working hours for all employees because of COVID-19. Putting these policies in writing sets the right expectations for all staff and removes some of the individual’s burden from continually explaining their situations.
3. Focus on outcomes, not effort: Working in a fully remote environment will put everyone’s performance measurement processes to the test. Focusing on outcomes and impact made towards business goals should help identify the real top performers versus the performative…performers. Leadership should reinforce these ideals by strictly focusing on achievements and not one’s hours logged in front of a Zoom meeting.
4. Encourage authenticity: The best way to build engagement in a remote environment and foster inclusion for all genders is to acknowledge everyone’s needs and to show a little bit of vulnerability. It is hard for employees, especially women, to show up to work as if they are not juggling childcare, elder care, remote learning and household tasks when their leaders are leading as if none of these factors impact them personally. Encourage realism among your employee base by being understanding if children are in the background of meetings, or if schedules need to be shifted to accommodate home life obligations.
5. Support and education managers: Authors of the same Harvard Business Review article state: “If you want to make WFH work for everyone, you must ensure that line managers understand their colleagues’ WFH arrangements and receive training on burnout, work stress, work/life balance, and inclusion.” Most managers want to support their employees but do not have the experience or the tools readily available to do so. Providing guidance on company policies and tips for managing employees with alternative working arrangements will go a long way for maintaining engagement.
Encourage realism among your employee base by being understanding if children are in the background of meetings, or if schedules need to be shifted to accommodate home life obligations.
Despite the months we’ve collectively faced the COVID pandemic, we still don’t have clarity on a timeline for when our professional and personal lives will begin to look more like what they did at the end of 2019. What we do know is that every week that goes by in this climate is another week that puts professional women in difficult situations. Whether we are facing demands from work and home life that far exceed the number of hours in a day, or worrying about our own professional development path, women risk losing the gains we have collectively made in the workplace over the past few decades.
Businesses of all stages and sizes have the opportunity to acknowledge and address these challenges. What will your company do to support the women in your workforce?