School’s ‘In.’ Are Women Out?
By April Hall

Can you afford to lose gender diversity?

While working parents are used to juggling the needs of both their children and their office, attempting to work from home during a pandemic has presented a slew of new challenges. Young children need support for virtual learning, and of course, there are the young Zoom Bombers who managed to sneak up behind parents in the middle of video meetings. There’s no end in sight: A quick transition to working from home has now stretched to over six months.

We’ve all heard these stories, and many of us have experienced it firsthand. Now that many schools will not have in-person learning in September, parents will need to again take on the role of teacher.

While most public companies do not get involved in local education issues, boards and managements must be aware of and open to a workforce that needs flexibility. In March, remote working moved to the top of the board agenda: How would the company support employees? What infrastructure did the workforce need to be successful? Now, directors need to turn an eye again to supporting employees who will be stressed and stretched over work/life balance.

One survey sponsored this summer by Care.com, a website that helps families connect with childcare providers, found that of respondents who have children under the age of 15, 73% say that they may have to make major changes at work. Fifteen percent of those were considering “leaving the workforce entirely.” The majority of those considering quitting their jobs are women.

In 2019, both husbands and wives worked in nearly 30 million families, according to the Department of Labor. If balancing childcare and work becomes untenable at this stage of the pandemic, millions of women could leave the workforce. There are just not enough hours in the day to hold a full-time job and oversee remote school and childcare.

I’m not the first one to write about this issue. Others have addressed the role managers play in accommodating hard-working employees who are also hard-working care givers. But making it work goes beyond management alone — the board should provide guidance on how to move forward.

A mass exodus by mothers from the workforce could deal a blow to a generation of women’s careers. What’s more, it could hobble many companies’ work in gender diversity — and the competitive advantage that comes along with it. If the Care.com numbers track, the American workforce could lose nearly 4.5 million women.

Boards need to think about those numbers and look at their workforce demographics. If millions leave because of the lack of time and the pressures of family, how does that affect human capital? What does that do to your talent pipeline?

There are ways for boards and management to act and adapt to this reality.

McKinsey & Co., after conducting a study of the availability of childcare and how women leaving the workforce en masse would affect the global GDP, made suggestions to sustain mothers in corporate America.

Here are just a few:

  • Employer- or state-funded provision of childcare or tax policies that encourage both spouses to work.
  • Family-friendly policies, including flexible programs and part-time programs, to support workers experiencing an increased childcare burden during the pandemic and beyond.
  • Rethinking performance reviews and promotions, as well as senior- and middle-management buy-in to ensure the widescale adoption of changes.

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace for women, also offered suggestions in Fortune magazine, including, “Revisit job structures and innovate beyond the 40-hour work week,” and, “Train managers on how to support teams who are juggling the ever-evolving challenges of work, family, anxiety and isolation.”

The Mom Project’s suggestions dovetail into the “Stand Up for Parents” pledge (investinparents.com) that has been signed by companies including Salesforce and PepsiCo.

As with any sea change, solutions will vary from company to company. While the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day workforce isn’t traditionally the purview of the board, directors know that employees are a major stakeholder who ultimately contribute to the business’s success. What’s more, human capital and diversity are vital to a company’s future — all issues the board takes on regularly.

April Hall is managing editor of Directors & Boards. She welcomes feedback at April.hall@directorsandboards.com.


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