CEO & Co-Founder at WNORTH, an organization bridging the gender power gap by elevating women in the leadership pipeline.
By now, we have all seen the statistics that women (and specifically women of color) have been particularly negatively impacted by the pandemic. The “invisible labor” that has held women back from advancing more seamlessly into positions of leadership in the past was even more pronounced in the last 12 months. Support structures that we have come to rely on were absent or out of reach for many this past year.
From where I sit, as the CEO of a women’s leadership organization dedicated to supporting women in the so-called “messy middle,” I have seen women face enormous challenges with staying in their leadership roles this past year. It wasn’t particularly surprising to me to see the recent statistic from the 2020 Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey and LeanIn that revealed one in three working mothers have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of Covid-19.
Interestingly enough, it’s typically the internal challenges these women are facing at their organizations (and not external pulls) that are leaving them frustrated. According to a March 2021 survey by Indeed, 65% of women who downshifted their careers this past year say their team scheduled decision-making meetings when they were not able to attend, 40% made hiring decisions without them and 33% made strategic decisions that impacted their work without their input.
Here are four ways your organization can support and retain your top female talent:
1. Rethink the traditional 9-to-5.
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In 2018, I met a woman who I believed (at the time) to be a unicorn. She was the co-CEO of a Seattle-based tech company and she shared that role with another woman. She worked Monday through Wednesday and her co-CEO worked Wednesday through Friday. They overlapped on Wednesdays to be able to bring each other up to speed and the company got their combined brainpower for that mighty day. Sure, it’s a financial commitment for the company to pay 20% more for that sixth day of work, but from what I gathered, the system worked and the two leaders were thriving and so was the company.
My Swiss-American friend recently shared that in Switzerland, jobs are posted on job boards with percentages beside them: 80%, 60%, etc. These percentages represent the number of days of the week that these professional roles are for. Why is it that if you are looking for a professional, corporate role in North America, there is no such thing as a three- or four-day workweek?
I fundamentally believe that since the pandemic has shaken up the world of work, there is no reason we can’t also consider changing traditional structures and roles. In order to continue to attract and retain top talent, organizations need to consider posting professional roles with embedded flexibility as to the number of hours or days of the week employees can work.
2. Provide women with leadership training that makes sense.
For most, this year may not be the year to embark on intensive higher education such as an MBA. That doesn’t mean professional development is out of the cards for women leaders in your organization. In a December 2020 survey, 85% of our members stated that they were as ambitious or more ambitious than they were pre-pandemic.
Women are craving development and advancement now more than ever, yet many organizations have slashed learning and development budgets. Allow women leaders to have a say in the type of development opportunities that they would like to participate in as they know what motivates and inspires them best.
3. Stop trying to block women from making external connections.
I’ve seen this all too often: Almost as a form of protectionism, many companies are not open to the idea of facilitating networking connections between their employees (especially women) and those who work for other companies. The thing to understand about women in leadership is this: The higher up you get on the corporate ladder, the lonelier it gets. There are fewer peers with shared experience and fewer role models.
People thrive in collaborative environments; they gain strength from connecting with like-minded leaders. In many organizations, men may be able to find their comrades in senior leadership; however, it is significantly more difficult for women to find theirs. I fundamentally believe this to be one of the core reasons we lose senior women in male-dominated sectors at a higher rate. Encourage and pay for the opportunity for women in your organization to gain a network with other women in leadership.
4. Don’t think that because you hired a diversity, equity and inclusion leader, your work is done.
The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed diversity to the top of many CEO agendas, finally, and many organizations have moved quickly to support their employees and hire diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals. However, old systems and structures are still in place, so in order for DEI strategies to be effective, institutional change must take place.
This type of change can only be achieved if driven and championed by the C-suite. Cross-functional teams and committees with representatives from every department are imperative to the development and implementation of an effective DEI strategy. Renew your focus on belonging, the intersection of DEI, where individuals reach their full potential and innovation thrives because their values and those of the company are fully aligned.
Organizations that are truly committed to elevating women to senior-level positions need to support women throughout their leadership journeys.