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At the beginning of 2020, for the second time in America’s history, women outnumbered men in the workforce. We’ve seen record losses since then and the statistics are grim: women accounted for 100% of jobs lost in December of 2020, including 154,000 Black women; 275,000 total women left the workforce in January 2021. The number of women in the workforce hasn’t been this low since 1998.
The impact of Covid-19 on the workplace has presented new challenges for working women, particularly for women of color. Trends that existed long before the pandemic, from disproportionate home care responsibilities to greater representation in low-wage employment, to long-standing gender inequalities in corporate leadership, have been exacerbated and contributed to this unprecedented regression.
The corporate world must act now to keep women in the workforce and ensure the pandemic doesn’t erase years of progress. This requires a commitment from the top to drive measurable results. Here are the five steps that will bring about corporate culture change and increase the number of women in leadership positions:
Minimize or eliminate unconscious bias
Unconscious bias training ensures that women, especially women of color, are not overlooked in the hiring or promotion process. In companies with smaller gender disparities in representation, half of employees received unconscious bias training in the past year, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren’t making progress closing these gaps. From the CEO to new hires, all employees should engage in unconscious bias training to understand, own and address both conscious and unconscious biases that prevent women from succeeding.
Related: Why the World Needs More Entrepreneurial Women in Leadership
Significantly increase the number of women in senior operating roles
When companies have a foundation and commitment to progress — with clear goals and accountability — they are in a better position to drive real change. It starts by both setting near-term and long-term goals. Then, as more women move to senior operating roles, there will be more women to promote and hire at each level beneath them.
Measure targets at every level and communicate progress and results regularly
When companies set measurable goals, such as hiring or promoting a certain number of women each year, and hold themselves and the senior team accountable, change happens. Results should be communicated to the wider organization and board to show progress.
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Base career progress on results and performance, not on presence
You can create cultural change so that work flexibility is embraced, and not an underused and over talked about benefit. Think about giving women and men control over where and how they work, whenever possible, and adapt to the evolving needs and expectations of your talent base.
Flexibility is essential to supporting employees. Adjusting to the needs of women, especially working caregivers, can help to ensure they stay in the workforce, instead of choosing between their personal and professional lives. When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
Identify women of potential and give them sponsors, as well as mentors
Research shows that sponsorship accelerates career advancement, and as more women move to senior operating roles they will promote and hire additional women.
In order to succeed, women of all backgrounds need career sponsors, mentors and access to networks of influence. Men, who still hold the majority of leadership positions have a critical role to play in advocating for women, both internally and in the wider corporate community. Everyone wins when women are assigned both a mentor and a sponsor.
The pandemic has reversed women’s advancement in the workforce, and the longer we wait to course correct, the harder it will be to solve gender and racial equity in corporate leadership. We need to act now, together, to keep our nation’s women in the workforce. It’s imperative for the long-term success of our women and our nation.
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