One in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, according to this year’s McKinsey and LeanIn.org annual Women in the Workplace study.
“This translates to millions of women leaving the workforce,” said Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.org in Palo Alto, Calif. “It could wipe out all the hard-earned progress we’ve seen for women in leadership.”
According to the National Women’s Law Center, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September when their kids went back to school or began online learning from home. But it’s not only women with children who are struggling at work right now. Black women are more likely than other employees to think about leaving the workforce because of concerns over their health and safety, according to the Women in the Workplace study.
However, women are less likely to share their concerns about work/life balance or talk about being parents at all with their manager because they’re worried it will derail their careers, Thomas said. Even before the pandemic, women were acutely aware of the “motherhood penalty,” which assumes working mothers are less productive than working fathers and puts them at a disadvantage in terms of pay, promotions and work experiences, she says. This reluctance to speak up is especially pronounced for Black women who are concerned about being stereotyped as angry, said Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose and inclusion officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) U.S. in Chicago.
Managers Are the Linchpins
Managers are often the key to keeping employees in the workplace. “The manager is the linchpin of a fair and equitable workplace—they really set the tone,” said Erica Salmon Byrne, chair of Ethisphere Institute’s Business Ethics Leadership Alliance, a Denver-based network of 300 companies. “In all of our data, the vast majority of employees (67 percent) who have a concern—if they raised it—they raised it with their manager.”
This is especially true during the pandemic because the solutions human resources offers don’t always work for every employee, Schuyler said. For instance, during the pandemic, employees at PwC who are struggling have the option of taking extra time off, going on a sabbatical or working a reduced schedule, but those solutions aren’t the answer for every employee. “Black women are often the breadwinners of their families, so to say, ‘Your option is to go on a sabbatical or go to 60 percent time with 60 percent pay’ doesn’t fill the gap and doesn’t help,” Schuyler said.
“Managers are in the best position to have meaningful conversations with their employees about what solutions would work and then go back to senior leadership and say ‘This policy is great, but what I’m really hearing is people need to have something different,’ ” Schuyler said. Managers are also in the best position to understand how to implement HR policies to meet the needs of individual employees, she added.
Encourage Employees to Discuss Their Challenges
To help guide these conversations, PwC and other companies are providing managers with talking points to open up a dialogue with employees and ask about their current situation and challenges, and how managers can provide support. For instance, Schuyler said, a manager can say, “Help me to understand what I can help you with, and I’ll make sure this doesn’t derail your career.”
Often general questions such as, “How are you doing?” don’t get at the heart of the problem, said Christy Kenny, director of HR client relations and talent management at Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), a publicly traded energy company in Newark, N.J. “But if you ask an employee what’s working and what’s not working in terms of their schedule, you start to get at the answer,” she said.
PSEG is encouraging its managers to ask employees questions such as:
- Are you getting the support you need from your peers? Is there anything we can be doing differently as a team?
- Are you encountering new barriers in your work? What can we do to ensure your success?
- How is your work schedule going? Is there anything you need to adjust so that the schedule is sustainable going forward?
- What gets in the way of doing your job?
- What is the most frustrating barrier?
- How can I help remove barriers?
- What resources do you need to make things easier for you to do your work?
Look for Ways to Accommodate Individual Employees
From these conversations between managers and employees, PSEG decided to expand its definition of flexible work hours, Kenny said. In the past, flexible work hours meant starting just an hour early or an hour late, but now it’s about customizing the workday to meet the specific circumstances of each employee, she said. For instance, a flexible workday might mean allowing an employee to start work at 6 a.m. so she isn’t working while her children are doing remote learning, Kenny said.
Other possible solutions managers can implement include making the first two hours of the workday free of meetings so working parents can get ready for the day or offering a daily “block-out” period where no one is expected to be on Slack or Zoom.
It’s incumbent on managers to create and foster environments where employees can come to work as their authentic selves, said Michael Matthews, chief diversity, inclusion and corporate responsibility officer at Synchrony, a consumer financial services company in Stamford, Conn. “Does a single mom have to explain away some of her challenges or, as a manager, do you partner with employees to look for solutions?” he asked. “Are you more understanding about interruptions, start and end times, and are you looking for ways to accommodate their needs?”
Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.