Between August and September of this year, 865,000 women — of whom 324,000 were Latina and 58,000 Black — left the workforce. That’s four times as many men who did the same, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.
Months into a pandemic that still has no clear end in sight, the career ambitions of many women are at a crisis point. Even at the start of COVID-19’s appearance in the U.S., in March and April, the economic consequences of the virus on women were especially severe. Industries that women over-index in — from hospitality and service industry work to education and health care — were hard hit with job losses, something that impacted Black women especially. And as the economy struggled to rattle forward, with children at home and online schooling (mostly) in place, many women have had to continue making tough choices between unpaid caregiving work and their careers — choices that, for a lot of heterosexual couples, are further influenced by the gender wage gap’s impact on salaries.
In short, the stakes for women’s careers — today and in lasting ways — are high. And it’s going to require the full attention of company leaders to ensure that progress toward workplace diversity, equity and inclusion doesn’t reverse itself, according to Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte.
“Right now, we’re in a crisis,” Ucuzoglu said during a recent fireside chat hosted by Deloitte at Fairygodboss’ (virtual) Galvanize event, an annual summit which convenes the leaders of women’s employee resource groups. “We're going to have to have the resilience to get through a really difficult period of time without losing any progress and without moving backwards, as this disproportionately hits women and underrepresented populations. That’s why it's so important for companies to be providing support right now.”
What, exactly, should that support look like? Together, Ucuzoglu and Dr. Terri Cooper, Deloitte’s Chief Inclusion Officer, shared with Galvanize’s audience the steps that leaders must take to ensure women’s career ambitions survive this pandemic.
“We've all seen the data about the number of women that potentially are falling out of the workforce,” Cooper said. “Joe talked about senior leaders being accountable. Absolutely. We need to continue to drive that. But it's also critically important that our middle managers and our lower level leaders are really engaged in having these conversations with our women.”
And these conversations must be regular ones, too. In other words, checking in on employees’ well-being during March or April doesn’t mean this box was checked.
“We have to be laser-focused on how it's really around embracing every single one of our female professionals to know that they're being heard and they're being cared for,” she said. “I think if we can all do that in the short term, we will mitigate the potential of us sliding back in the longer term.”
“First and foremost, the responsibility has to be directed from the top down,” Ucuzoglu said. “We have to demonstrate how important this is, focusing on the types of formal responsibilities that are assigned out, in terms of career counselors and mentors, and making certain that we’re assigning our highest quality people to serve in these very important roles.”
Allyship and mentoring dynamics are critical, he added, in preserving progress toward gender and racial parity in the workplace. And if leaders aren’t intentional about keeping space for this work today, the consequences could be severe.
“As difficult as this was in a pre-pandemic environment, when things go virtual it becomes even more challenging,” he added. “Sometimes, there’s a predisposition for people to fall back on their preexisting comfortable networks, which goes exactly contrary to the objective of opening up opportunities and breaking the chain of some of the inequities that have existed historically.”
“We know that women are taking on a much larger workload,” Cooper said. “We know that they need support in the work environment, and so what we've really been trying to drive is actually providing greater flexibility for our female employees. We’re also providing additional financial support, for all of our employees, but also directed towards our parents in these unprecedented times to actually try and take away some of the burden of childcare.”
And ideally, this emphasis on flexibility isn’t seen as just a short-term fix either, Ucuzoglu said.
“When I think about the art of the possible in a post-COVID world, with our eyes now having been opened to the possibility of greater flexibility around where work gets done... There is so much potential that will come out of this that's actually going to help us address some of the long-standing inequities,” he said.
With plates full and stress levels high, it can be all-too easy for personal connections at work to fall by the wayside, especially in a virtual environment. But as Cooper stressed, maintaining honesty and a sense of humanity is crucial.
“It's even more important to have that personal connection right now and to understand how people are feeling,” she said. “It's impossible to sponsor and drive a really highly talented female forward if she's completely stressed out and just feels overwhelmed with the pressures of work, the home life, etc. We have to understand the nuances and where individuals need that help now.”
Despite how “Zoom-ed out” many of us feel, Cooper recommended carving some time for frank, authentic conversation into video meetings.
“Just earlier this week, I was on a call with 35 of our most promising senior managers,” she said. “We were talking about a particular program we're trying to develop and we had some extra time at the end. And I’ll tell you, the best conversation that we had was the last 15 minutes where we just forgot about the work conversation and had the personal conversation instead. The personal conversation around, ‘How are you doing? What else can we do to help each other? Let's follow up with another coffee chat.’”
This need for authenticity extends to communication from companies’ senior leaders too, Ucuzoglu added.
“There should be frequent communication from the leadership of the organization that’s grounded in reality — not overly rosy or suggesting that everything will be fixed tomorrow,” he said. “You have to be really candid about the state of the world, have some empathy for what people are going through, recognize the challenging times, but then be able to project an optimistic vision that we will get through this. That each of our organizations are strong and resilient.”
Earlier this month, Deloitte co-sponsored a CEO survey, released with Fortune, which indicated that 96% of CEOs see diversity, equity and inclusion as among their most important strategic priorities. But just stating intention isn’t enough, Ucuzoglu said.
“It obviously has to go well beyond words,” he said. “Creating headlines is the easy part. This is about accountability. This is about me being personally responsible for outcomes.”
Part of being accountable, Cooper added, is a commitment to listening to your workers — then, acting on what you’ve heard. It’s a lesson that rang out especially clear over the summer, when conversations around systemic racism were at a high.
“We need to be listening substantially more and then taking actions around what we hear,” she said. “Now is the time that so many of our professionals are opening up and sharing their needs, their desires, their passions and the changes that they expect to see. And, as leaders, we absolutely need to listen. We have to continue having a constant dialogue and listening to the needs of all of our professionals, but in particular our Black and Latinx professionals right now.”
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