What Happens to Workplace Inequities During a Pandemic?

Keeping Women Visible During COVID-19

How do we maintain gender equity gains?

It’s almost month four of the pandemic. We’ve gone from treading water as we faced the new realities to adjusting our view to a longer-term outlook for working from home and navigating virtual organizations and processes in the new normal. As we entered 2020, I was hopeful that this year would yield some movement and positive results for gender equality in the workplace. In the wake of the #MeToo, #TimesUp and headlines of sexual harassment and corporate fumbles, much-needed conversations about corporate policies and cultures were taking place.

And then we were all sent home. 

Home to work. 

Home to juggle the blurred lines between our professional and personal lives.

Leading with Empathy in a Virtual WorldSuddenly, workplace flexibility was something we were all doing — regardless of gender, position, seniority or approved action plan. The challenge is, the majority of senior leaders who are still going to work (because they are business-critical) are mostly men. As a gender strategist, my concern is that when decisions are being made to layoff/furlough or some other HR-conceived word, no one is left to look at the impact this is having on women, people of color and other demographic employee segments. Though I do not believe it is malicious or intentional, I do believe that out-of-sight, out-of-mind business decisions could be taking place.

Kristen Pressner

I reached out to Kristen Pressner, Global Head of People & Culture for Roche Diagnostics and creator of #FlipItToTestIt, for her insights. She noted that “the vast majority of us suddenly being forced to work from home has been a BIG ‘flip it to test it’ opportunity. The extreme nature of it all seems to have challenged the notion that certain work is the woman’s role, and an uptick in truly shared responsibility and jointly juggling seems to have resulted from working fathers finding themselves suddenly homeschooling or having their meetings crashed by kids.” Her prognosis is that on the other side of this will be positive changes due to the awareness created and experienced.

What about other workplace inequities? What happens to them during an ongoing pandemic?

Recent conversations with clients quickly circle to questions including, “How do we avoid losing the momentum many companies have made to advance women? When we get the all-clear and can return to work, what does that mean? How can we have input into creating the new normal?”

Elba Pareja-Gallagher

For perspective on these questions, I spoke to Elba Pareja-Gallagher, UPS Director of Finance, US Domestic Product Performance and the CEO and founder of ShowMe50% Women Leading. Her work with ShowMe50 is focused on leveling the playing field for women by implementing a culture of gender equality that leads to the achievement of 50 percent women in senior leadership positions in corporate America.


Jeffery: Elba, in terms of women’s leadership advancement, what are you most worried about as we continue to WFH?

Elba: There are two big drags to progress going on. One is that working moms, who already were managing a double shift (day job 9-5, home job 5-9), have had to add more shifts: teacher, cafeteria manager, health care worker. According to a survey by LeanIn.org and Surveymonkey, a woman working full-time with kids is now spending 71 hours every week on housework and caregiving, including family pandemic responsibilities—nearly two full-time jobs—before she starts doing her actual full-time job. Men in the same situation are doing 20 fewer hours of labor every week. For women of color and single moms, the demands are even greater. The second drag is in our day jobs. We have become invisible. Executives and senior leaders, statistically mostly male, have fallen back to the convenience of the “good old boys” network. It was hard enough to advocate for a leveling playing field when we were in the office observing biased behavior and pushing for checks and balances, but now, we can’t even see it, and we are no longer seen.

Jeffery: What tips do you have for women to help them overcome the lack of face-time or not being invited to key meetings?

Elba: Influence visual check-ins with two levels above you. Find a way to arrange 20-minute check-ins with your boss and their boss. Even if it’s only within your peer group, be seen and speak up about the value-added work you are doing. Make it your mission to uncover and share unique insights. This means working hard to network remotely with your peers and other influencers to access and develop new information.

Jeffery: How do we avoid siloed behavior?

Elba: Communicating with influencers is essential. Just because you aren’t at the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be networking with others. Make sure you’re calling, instant-messaging and Zooming with various levels of employees on other teams just to catch up. These casual conversations lead to critical activities going on in the silos, and you can identify ways to integrate your work into important areas to help the organization solve problems. When was the last time you called a peer working a high profile group to say hello and talk about what’s hot?

Jeffery: How do we continue to shine a light on bias blind spots and their implications?

Elba: Now that the crisis has entered the new normal, we need the courage to resume the conversation. One conversation starter is to forward articles about the challenges women are facing, such as the Sheryl Sandberg Fortune op-ed with a short note, “Interesting article about the struggles for our working moms for us to keep in mind.” Also, you can talk to your boss about facilitating a listening meeting to talk about working from home and career development ideas in the new normal. Lastly, it’s a great time to use team engagement tools like 50 Ways to Fight Bias to bring inclusion solutions back into the light. This is a terrific tool for a mixed gender group to explore biases and learn facts in a non-threatening and fun way.

ShowMe50 facilitates these lunch-n-learn sessions and finds them to be very effective. They aren’t just a training tool, they are a team-building exercise too. For the best results, executives need to step up and start the conversation and hold their direct-reports accountable to showing inclusive behavior. I’m a big believer in 360 reviews where the employees rate the bosses. That’s the most effective way to identify blind spots quickly. Executives can also look at the gender composition of teams and promotion histories and have candid conversations with senior leaders who lack diversity on their teams. Scorecards are excellent accountability tools. We do it for everything else, why not for diverse team composition?

Jeffery: What gender equity best practice work are you currently tracking?

Elba: Like you, I’m seeing transparent and objective talent management and performance evaluation as the next key step toward gender equity and balance in the workplace. Although many bosses will say the talent management process is fair and that they are not biased in selections, social science research and statistics tell a different story. Executive accountability can be a game changer.

Jeffery: What are you seeing in terms of executive accountability? 

Elba: Whether for innovation for commercial success or policy changes that change the world, tension shapes transformative progress. When it comes to influencing the kind of change that can really move the needle for diversity in the composition of leadership teams, we must get uncomfortable and have difficult conversations. If you want a great example, look at Unilever, who in 2020 was honored for inspiring change and accelerating progress for women in the workplace. In 2020, they achieved 50 percent women in all management positions globally. One of the most creative and effective techniques they implemented was the Gender Appointment Ratio, a measure to track senior leaders’ track records in appointing women. This is the kind of ambitious but uncomfortable action organizations can aspire to if they really want to improve gender diversity at the top.

Jeffery: Elba, thank you again for sharing your insights and tips to advance women.

To learn more about ShowMe50 check-out their upcoming event:

When & How: What It Takes To Achieve 50% Women in Leadership June 30 @ 4 – 5:30 pm EST

For information and to register, click here.

Organizations and leaders are grappling with a multi-dimensional chess game to realign and reset business models, financial plans, the health and safety of their employees, customers and supply chain and much more. But it’s important that we also continue to focus on equity and systematic issues that are present within organizations in order to create a future that is fair to all employees and set up companies for economic recovery after COVID.

These decisions that are being made by senior leadership (ie mostly men), must be mindful, self-governed and forward-thinking to prevent companies from moving backward in their women’s leadership advancement progress.

Relevant resources:

Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Founder of the Father of Daughter Initiative, creator of the Gender Conversation QuickStarters Newsletter and the Male Advocacy Profile, Jeffery is a former director of diversity strategy for The Coca-Cola Company and is the author of two books, WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men, Selling to Women.