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This year’s McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s annual Women in the Workplace study reports that 25% of women in the workforce are considering changing their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.org in Palo Alto, California stated, “This translates to millions of women leaving the workforce…It could wipe out all the hard-earned progress we’ve seen for women in leadership.”

In another study, conducted by the National Women’s Law Center, shows that 865,000 women left the workforce back in September 2020 when their children went back to school or began remote schooling from home. However, mothers with children in school are not the only group of women who are facing this struggle. The Women in the Workplace study also reveals that black women, due to concern for their health and safety,  are more likely than other employees to consider leaving the workforce.

That said, according to Thomas, “women are less likely to share their concerns about work/life balance or talk about being parents at all with their managers because they’re worried it will derail their careers.” She continues, “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.” The concern for black women is highlighted by Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers, when she says “This reluctance to speak up is especially pronounced for Black women who are concerned about being stereotyped as angry.”

Manager Involvement is Key

Keeping employees in the workforce is a responsibility that often times falls to their managers. Erica Salmon Byrne, chair of the Denver-based network of 300 companies, Ethisphere Institute’s Business Ethics Leadership Alliance, says, “The manager is the linchpin of a fair and equitable workplace – they really set the tone…In all of our data, the vast majority of employees (67%) 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 PricewaterhouseCoopers 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.” Schuler continues to share the effects this has on black women in particular, “Black women are often the breadwinners of their families, so to say, ‘Your option is to go on a sabbatical or go to 60% time with 60%  pay’ doesn’t fill the gap and doesn’t help.”

She adds, “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.’ Managers are also in the best position to understand how to implement HR policies to meet the needs of individual employees.”

Discussing Challenges with Employees

In an attempt to facilitate these important conversations, PricewaterhouseCoopers and other companies are offering managers talking points to create a dialogue with their employees – asking them about their situations, the issues they face, and how they – as managers – can support them. “For example, 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,’” suggests Schuyler. 

Christy Kenny, Director of HR Client Relations and Talent Management at Public Service Enterprise Group, a publicly-traded energy company in Newark, N.J. says, “Often general questions such as, ‘How are you doing?’ don’t get at the heart of the problem…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.”

Public Service Enterprise Group suggests that their managers ask employees more direct questions:

  • 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?

Accommodating Your Employees

Asking the kinds of questions listed above had a big impact on Public Service Enterprise Group. Kenny says, “From these conversations between managers and employees, Public Service Enterprise Group decided to expand its definition of flexible work hours.” She continues, “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…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.”

Additional solutions that managers might consider could include allowing the first few hours of each day to be “meeting-free” for working parents so they can dedicate that time to preparation or providing a specific time frame where they are not expected to be in any virtual meetings.  Michael Matthews, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Corporate Responsibility Officer at Synchrony, a consumer financial services company in Stamford, Connecticut says, “It’s incumbent on managers to create and foster environments where employees can come to work as their authentic selves.” He adds, “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? Are you more understanding about interruptions, start and end times, and are you looking for ways to accommodate their needs?”

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