Women accounted for 100% of the net 140,000 jobs shed by the U.S. economy in December. A total of 865,000 women left the workforce in September, which was four times more than the number of men who left. Moreover, Black and Hispanic parents and Asian mothers saw a greater drop in their share of workforce participation compared with other groups during the pandemic. Today, the share of women at work is at a record low after 33 years. While every business should be putting forward tailored strategies to address their specific gender parity problems, the stark reality is that bold action is required across the board in the face of these real dangers to women and society.

I recently sat down with Janine Smith, Deputy General Counsel and Vice President at The Hershey Company, and Caitlin Noone, Chief Operating Officer at my organization, BCIU, to discuss this crisis in corporate America. We came together around six essential ways to support women in the workforce today. Here they are:

Put your people at the center of your values

At a moment when the world has been profoundly rewired, the smartest organizations hone in on their core purposes and values. “This past year has caused us all to reflect on what’s important and what we value,” says Smith. “People and businesses are asking, ‘What is our purpose and how is what we are doing on a day-to-day basis supporting that purpose?’” Many organizations find it challenging to put their people at the heart of their businesses and build cultures that empower them to keep up with the pace of change. Noone points to core values like empathy, integrity, reliability, and trust as critical in this moment. “To respond equitably to the rapid transformations taking place right now, organizations must put their values at the forefront of their strategy,” says Noone. That begins with focusing on what matters most to your people, down to the individual.

Leverage tried-and-true policy innovations

There are many powerful interventions that businesses can embrace to achieve greater gender parity, from offering flexible time for working mothers to de-biasing the evaluation and promotion process. For some great ideas, read Iris Bonhet’s “What Works: Gender Equality by Design.” Fixing systemic bias in your organization will require efforts that are multipronged and targeted to your specific work environment. That may mean engaging in progressive leadership hiring or setting ambitious promotion targets. As you start to exert extensive efforts to stem this crisis, here’s one approach more companies would do well to adopt right away: Support your working mothers.

Grow your community and partnerships

Few things are impossible when we embrace the power of partnership. At this critical juncture, every business must look for ways to build new partnerships and nurture its community of women in order to multiply the impact of policies, norm changes, and DEI initiatives. For businesses, formal and informal channels of support, such as mentorship programs and business resource groups, are the foundation of big transformations and the wellspring of important conversations around gender equity. “In addition to being critical to the development of women in your workforce, these engagement opportunities can also become platforms for less-heard voices to share new ideas and innovations that could enable business growth and success,” says Smith.

Support your working mothers

Working mothers have always worked a “double shift,” but the support systems that made this possible—school and childcare—have been upended. “When we switched to work-from-home,” says Noone, “suddenly there were these new factors affecting men and women differently and affecting mothers in particular.” Now is the time to not only add support for mothers, but to change norms and practices to support them better, and well into the future. Part of that includes building a diverse leadership team. When you have the right people in leadership, you will have more confidence, resources, and support to make changes. And with those changes you can see the ripple effects throughout your organization. Moreover, as Smith points out, “Everyone is kind of struggling to keep the kids quiet and keep the dog out of the frame and keep the cat from walking across the keyboard. And it’s humanized us in a different way. I’m hopeful that will stay and help us embrace more empathetic policies and practices for mothers in the years to come.”

Target and address the particular challenges faced by Black and Brown women

The recent calls for social justice have heightened the awareness and need within businesses to make considerable changes in support of Black and Brown women, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Savvy companies know that progress comes from a few key strategies. Through data-driven, rigorous experimentation and iteration, organizations can learn what is working—and not working—in their workplaces, enabling them to double down on effective policies or quickly pivot away from unsuccessful programs. Additionally, by building the vocabulary of awareness and understanding within your culture, you will be more equipped to discuss issues that intersect with race and gender in the workplace. Finally, by taking concrete steps to reduce microaggressions through training, cultural programming, and leadership development pipelines, you will unleash the power of diverse ideas in your organization.

Embrace the DEI imperative

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) enriches every institution it touches. Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. But diversity without equity and inclusion is meaningless. Organizations can have a highly representative workplace, but by not including diverse voices in leadership decisions, that diversity is not turning into inclusive decision-making, and not making a change in your culture. Of course, companies should care about women and feel a responsibility to hire, retain, and promote them. But there’s also a compelling business case in the data that shows companies with greater DEI, including gender diversity, perform better. From a company standpoint, it’s not just that they should be responsible actors, it’s in their enlightened self-interest. “As you embrace the DEI imperative, note that part and parcel to that process is also adopting standards, metrics, and KPIs,” says Smith. As Noone points out, “Not just to ensure transparency, but because you can’t change what you can’t measure.”

As we look toward an increasingly uncertain future, every business’s ability to address gender disparities is even more important for weathering turbulent times and achieving the highest rungs of success. When the push for gender equality slows, stops, or regresses, so does progress toward a healthier society.

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