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3 Steps Leaders Can Take to Stop Making Women Choose Between Family and Career

It's 2020, and it's time to build a more flexible and equitable workplace.

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One in four women is considering a downshift in their careers or leaving the workforce entirely as a result of the pandemic. This stat, from McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report, marks the first time in five years we’ve seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men. It’s sobering and, frankly, it’s unacceptable. So, let’s explore why it’s happening. 

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A critical juncture

There are almost as many women as there are men in the talent marketplace, yet women don't makeup half of the decision-makers. Why is that?

I have focused on gender equity in the workplace for almost two decades. Time and again, I see women forced to choose between impacting the world through their business acumen or by being a wife and mother. The pandemic has shone a bright, glaring spotlight onto this antiquated mindset and exposed it for what it is: systemic bias. It’s 2020, and even today, a woman’s success requires a choice between family and profession.  

Related: Closing the Covid Gender Gap

To ensure progress toward gender diversity, the Women in the Workplace report calls for companies and their leaders to step up and create a workplace that does not demand this type of choice. So, what does this look like, and can it be done?

Step 1: Establish a clear policy on workplace standards

In a recent survey, Global HR enterprise software company Workhuman found that "88% of employees want to work at a company with a clear policy on workplace rights." As we look to build a more just, inclusive and socially conscious workplace, it is no longer acceptable not to put a stake in the ground.

As a leader, I want people to work according to the values of their company because it is the one thing that keeps people together, whether we are in an office or not. Establishing clear values for our workforce fosters more purpose in employees’ work and cultivates more humanity in the workplace. It also lets women and underrepresented populations know their organization is committed to being an equitable workplace.

Here’s an example of how it’s done: Workhuman worked with thousands of HR leaders to establish the tenants of a modern, human-centered workplace called the Workhuman Charter of Workplace Rights and accompanying Workhuman Certified program. These tenets include the right to belong, grow, do meaningful work, be appreciated, have work-life harmony, be paid fairly, have privacy, feel safe and respected, and work in a place that strives to protect the environment. HR and business leaders know that there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to changing deep-seated cultural norms. A modern workplace requires progress in the form of actions for companies and leaders. The goal is to be celebrated as a positive disruptor. And with the new SEC mandate for public company annual reporting to include more than the number of employees as part of a broader scope of Human Capital metrics, measuring progress along these tenants is ever more critical for the U.S. publicly listed marketplace. 

Step 2: Reframe continuous performance management

Historically, women have received very vague feedback. “Great job, Jane! The meeting went as well as it could have.” “Kudos, Sue. You were terrific!” By contrast, men receive more pragmatic feedback. “Really good job in that meeting, John. Your presentation was clear and including that graph with last year’s sales numbers really brought the message home. Going forward, drive that point.” That kind of comment helps John hit it out of the park next time, while Jane and Sue are left wondering what exactly they did that was so wonderful and how they can improve.

Related: How We Can Rise Above Unconscious Gender Bias

The key here is to stop thinking about continuous performance management as an HR tool. Instead, understand that continuous performance management is more comprehensive. It encompasses how we relate and uniquely interact with each other to get the job done.   

Remember, women are relational in their decision-making, meaning that through purpose-driven initiatives, women consider how their decisions affect other people and manifest in the real world. Continuous performance management should not be dictated by a formula or a prepared set of standards for professional growth, but instead, be an adaptable and individualized conversation and experience between employees and their managers as well as employees and their peers.

A successful continuous performance management solution should provide "a full spectrum of feedback, mentoring, check-ins, and priorities to develop the talent of your team and inspire great work."

Step 3: Recognize, Recognize, Recognize

During the pandemic, women have dealt with a new type of “presenteeism.” Traditionally defined as the perceived problem of employees by their supervisors who are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury, or other condition, it has now evolved to include women feeling the need to overwork and overprove themselves. Yet, they still feel invisible.

In most cases, women still have the majority of responsibility at home in addition to their responsibilities at work. When you’re juggling all that, your whole world becomes about the role that you play in other people’s lives. You forget about the impact you make. But that doesn’t have to happen. Leaders need to do the reminding. Recognition strengthens relationships and reenergizes and motivates employees to feel good about where they are and what they are doing.

Related: 5 New Ways Leaders Can Support Women During Covid

It's also worth noting that a comprehensive, strategic employee recognition program leverages technology to amplify recognition so it can be broadcast throughout a company. Data points around employee sentiment allow business leaders to drive toward key goals such as retention, culture and employee happiness. These can be derived from tools like employee pulse surveys, similar to Moodtracker, which amplify employee voices to offer actionable recommendations on creating a winning culture.

So, let’s do everything we can to create a truly flexible and agile workplace. When was the last time you turned a critical eye to your policies and procedures? Understand that the infrastructure is not one-size-fits-all. And perhaps most important of all, start having honest conversations with your female employees and asking women what they really need to do the best work of their lives.

Patti Fletcher

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Patti Fletcher, Ph.D., is the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold (Entrepreneur Press 2018), gender equity advocate and expert authority on how to create a culture of inclusion to drive real business results. Fletcher is recognized as a futurist; a student of the inclusive talent economy and future of leadership; an innovation-through-inclusion expert; and a writer, advisor and speaker on topics related to driving progress through people. She has been featured in Time magazine, Al-Jazeera, Forbes, Newsweek, Xconomy and The Muse and advises corporate executives and board members from lean startups to Fortune 100s. Connect with Fletcher on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to vist the Workhuman blog for further insights.