Sepideh Nasiri is the CEO and founder of WoMENAIT, and an advocate for women, diversity and inclusion.
The pandemic has ravaged industries, causing unemployment numbers to reach record highs. While everyone has experienced the challenges brought on by Covid-19, women and people of color have been hit harder both economically and socially. A year later, 2.4 million women left the workforce with little prospect of returning.
Women made up less than 25% of the tech workforce, and women of color just 18%, prior to the pandemic. Considering the low numbers of women working in the tech industry, the loss of women in the workforce along with the “Great Resignation” is concerning.
Organizations must confront the harsh realities of the recent pandemic to counter this, in addition to their current workplace cultures. They need to be intentional in how they bring women back and in better situations than before.
Here are a few steps leaders can take to support women in the workplace:
1. Understand and adapt to changes in lifestyle.
The brutality of the pandemic has impacted women and people of color disproportionately — many of whom have been unable to re-enter the workforce. Women who are still employed face another drawback: the “double shift.”
Women need more flexible hours and scheduling and increased remote working opportunities. One survey found that 19% of women said they never want to return to work in person, compared to just 7% of men. For many women, “double shifts” have become the new norm even with schools reopening. Companies can support women by acknowledging and accommodating their unique experiences and offering them more flexibility in work hours and deadlines, crafting assistance programs or even destigmatizing juggling the responsibilities of being a professional and a parent.
2. Continue professional development.
With 1 in 4 women planning to leave the workforce, companies should explore innovative ways to invite women back into the workplace. Tech companies, in particular, can invest in re-entry workforce programs like apprenticeship and returnship to recruit new talent. Returnships are focused apprenticeships for women returning to the workforce. The upskilling and learning pathways follow a similar format to apprenticeships and internships, however, the program model is intentionally designed for parents, career changers and returners. Such programs can help support women — particularly underrepresented women — to make a career pivot, find mentorship and networking opportunities, and fill the gap in their resumes.
3. Support parents and childcare.
The pandemic highlighted the additional demands and pressures women face at home compared to their male counterparts. Seventy-two percent of women in the tech industry say they are struggling with childcare, in contrast to just 53% of men. Inviting women to return to the workforce means tech companies have to help women address these challenges. Recently, the government rolled out the Child Tax Credit, a pandemic relief program that provided families with monthly payments for children. Financial incentives are a meaningful way to support women struggling to maintain a work-life balance.
4. Recruit and mentor while providing a community.
The pandemic has highlighted issues within all industries, predominantly within tech. According to the Women in Tech report, 41% of the women reporting cited a lack of mentors as the main hindrance to promotion. Instead of creating policies that encourage women to thrive in the workplace, the band-aid solution of internally developed diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) programs has only exacerbated the gender gap. However, many in-house DEI departments primarily exist to check off a requirement box and rarely realize equity. Companies need to step up and look outwardly. Professional networks can provide a much-needed resource for women interested in meaningful advancements opportunities. Many of these peer networks are designed around creating support systems for underrepresented groups and provide the tools, networking and programming to help individuals grow professionally.
5. Reinvent perks to support remote culture.
Employers should redefine financial compensation models or rewards. Companies have found themselves spending less on rent, parking fees, catered meals or even kombucha dispensaries during the pandemic. These perks were intended for employees’ convenience and wellness. However, wellness has taken on a new meaning over the course of the past year. Perks should instead focus on fostering a community virtually or supporting an individual’s professional development and well-being.
6. Support time off.
Being sympathetic and accommodating to workers’ requests for time off promotes well-being. All forms of leave, including sick days and vacation days, should be honored and encouraged by employers to promote physical health, mental health and overall satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if employees have unlimited PTO if they don’t feel encouraged to take time off.
Companies should establish stronger parental leave for both mothers and fathers. A continued barrier against hiring women in the workplace or promoting them into high-level roles is the bias that women might need parental leave. If men were also expected and encouraged to take prolonged periods of work off, the pressure of picking family or career might be less burdensome for women.
7. Invest in leadership.
Repeatedly women have confronted barriers in advancement. According to the 2021 Women in Tech Report, women cited promotions as the main solution employers should provide to support their advancement, followed by mentorship opportunities. Companies need to view women as the assets they are and provide substantial opportunities for them to become leaders within the company and the industry. Tailor programs specifically toward the needs of women in executive positions, and provide coaching opportunities, a strong network of ambitious women, and specialized events. Encouraging top performers to join executive programs is how companies can help their talent grow.
Re-inviting women into the workforce will take aggressive maneuvering from companies, especially tech companies that have historically failed to create welcoming and supportive environments for women. Now is the opportunity to shift the status quo and put money and policies into play to ensure a future for women in the workplace.