Are we losing ground on gender balance in the workforce?

Companies across industries have spent decades identifying, recruiting, retaining and nurturing talented women. While much progress has been made, the current crisis is highlighting the residual impact of some challenges that may not have been sufficiently addressed. And so, the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted the lives of millions of people around the world may have also slowed the careful progress toward a more gender-balanced workforce, especially in the upper levels of management.

Working women feel more stressed

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In all, 46% of women surveyed said they felt a need to be “always available” at work, even during off-hours. Of those, one-quarter (23%) fear that they will eventually have to choose between their personal responsibilities and their careers. Perhaps even more concerning, 10% of these women told us that they’re considering taking a career break–or even leaving the workforce entirely.

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Additionally, nearly three in ten (29%) respondents cited worry about overburdening their team members should they not be always available. An equal percentage worry about the impact on their career progression if they are not instantly responsive all day–taking too long to respond to an email, for instance–even outside of normal working hours.

And, its women both with and without caregiving responsibilities who have reported being under extraordinary stress. A majority of women with children surveyed reported taking on additional childcare (58%) and home-schooling/education responsibilities during the pandemic (53%). And 53% of women without caregiving responsibilities said they felt pressure to be “always available” at work.

Related: How employers can avoid losing talented women during the pandemic

Certainly, people of all genders have been affected by the challenges of the pandemic. But they do seem to be driving women out of the workforce in significantly higher numbers than men in some areas. For example, some 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce in the month of September 2020 alone–four times the number of men who exited that month. Our survey indicates a number of women around the world are thinking of taking the same action. Should this action occur it could have the potential to slow decades of institutional progress toward gender parity.

Women continue to question whether they want to advance in their careers 

As many as three in five women respondents indicated that they’re questioning whether they want to advance in their careers at all considering what it takes to move up at their organizations.

Most of the reasons women gave us for not wanting to progress in their careers predate the pandemic. More than two in five (41%) who questioned advancing at their organizations cited a lack of work/life balance.

Other factors included:

  • lack of flexible work arrangements (29%)
  • expected work hours (27%)
  • lack of formal mentorship programs (26%)
  • lack of diversity (24%)
  • “poor culture” (22%)

Long before the pandemic, many organizations had begun to address these issues. However, a multitude of women we surveyed clearly felt their organizations have not made enough progress in this area.

Six steps to improve gender balance

Does the data we collected indicate that these long-standing issues may be reaching a boiling point in the workplace? It’s too early to tell, but it’s not too early for businesses to act to mitigate the challenges. Some of these changes should take place on an organization-wide level; others should be customized on an individual basis–because no two people have the same needs.

Based on our data, we’ve identified six actions employers can take to support workers of all genders during and after the pandemic.

  1. Make flexible working the norm.

Flexible working doesn’t just mean “working from home.” Companies should consider working with their people to find scheduling and location arrangements that make sense for all parties. Some people may want to work reduced hours, others might want to work longer but on fewer days; some may prefer job-sharing. And organizations need to make it clear that flexible work schedules are for anyone, not just parents, and that no one will be penalized for opting into a flexible arrangement. If this requires a larger cultural change throughout the organization, management should help drive that change.

  1. Lead with empathy and trust.

It’s never been more important for leaders and managers to have open and supportive conversations with their teams. Even if your organization already has a regular cadence of check-ins, someone who was okay last week may have had a family member fall ill with COVID-19 this week, or a homeschooling emergency, or a burst water pipe. Leading with empathy promotes a supportive culture, a culture people want to stay in and contribute to.

  1. Keep promoting growth opportunities, but with more flexible scheduling.

Networking, mentorship, and sponsorship might be even more important in a remote-work environment than they were before the pandemic. Nearly half of our respondents recognize the benefits of these opportunities, but the timing of these kinds of events may not work as well for everyone, especially now that many people have added responsibilities. Early morning “breakfast” meetings may clash with people’s home responsibilities. And post-work get-togethers may exacerbate the Zoom fatigue so many people are feeling. Vary the meeting times so as many people as possible have the opportunity to attend.

  1. Create learning opportunities that fit within your employees’ daily lives.

Like professional development opportunities, learning opportunities are only useful to the extent that people can actually fit them into their schedules. Just because the pandemic has eliminated traffic jams and commutes from the lives of people who work from home, that doesn’t mean they have hours of free time every day. Give people the opportunity to access the support they need in flexible and practical ways, like via curated digital learning they can access when and where they choose.

5. Reduce unconscious bias in decision-making around rewards, succession and promotion.

This has always been important, but the pandemic has shown us just how essential it is. Organizations need to evaluate people’s contributions in different ways–including in the contexts of remote work and the unavoidable commitments people have outside of work. (And if you translate “unavoidable commitments” into caregiving and caregiving only, watch out–your unconscious bias is showing.)

  1. Make diversity, equity and inclusion non-negotiable parts of your company’s culture.
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The business world has the opportunity to lead the way forward and model the kind of culture we want to see in the world. That would be a win-win-win: for businesses, for our people, and for the societies we live in. Let’s get it done.

Terri Cooper
Dr. Terri Cooper is Deloitte’s vice chair of External Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) where she focuses on fostering Deloitte’s external DEI brand and helping to drive Deloitte’s DEI strategy in the marketplace.