The She-Cession Rebound: Prioritizing Opportunities and Needs for the Female Workforce

By Sophia Mikros posted 08-16-2021 02:16 PM



Prioritizing Opportunities and Needs for the Female Workforce

As businesses emerge from pandemic lockdowns and disruptions, many leaders in AchieveNEXT’s network have discussed how response and recovery have affected their lives and those of their employees and colleagues. Issues of work-life balance, equity, and career management have emerged alongside topics like productivity, workplace safety, and managing growth.

One issue in discussions—and in the broader national conversation—is the evidence that the economic brunt of the pandemic (e.g., job and income loss, stress and burnout) has been disproportionately borne by women, and even more by minority women. There wasn’t so much a recession as a “she-cession,” some have said, reversing gains women have made in the workplace, causing burnout, and driving some women from the workforce.

Coming out of the crisis, it is important for leaders to understand the harm women experienced and to design future work and workplaces to mitigate and prevent it. To explore this topic, AchieveNEXT hosted a virtual roundtable discussion among a dozen female members of the CFO and CHRO Alliances. They represented industries as diverse as chemical refining, automobile sales and repairs, home health care services, biotech and mental healthcare services. The meeting was facilitated by AchieveNEXT’s Robyn Pollack and Christin McClave, and was followed 10 days later by a similar roundtable attended by half a dozen male “allies,” moderated by AchieveNEXT’s Milton Corsey.

Here are highlights of the discussions.

Women’s Workplace Needs, Opportunities, and Insights

1. Flexible work and hybrid workplaces were a godsend—and women want to keep them. Virtually all the attendees, speaking for themselves and their female colleagues, said that the ability to work from home, at least part time, enabled them to juggle work, home, and family responsibilities. This was particularly the case for women with school-aged children, most of whom were at home during the pandemic. (Women with 6- to 12-year-old children increased the amount of time they spent child rearing by two hours a day, 50 percent more than men did.) Many participants found that work-from-home (WFH) arrangements produced additional benefits—discovering roles that can be done remotely, improving the coordination of existing information systems, etc. One company that operates dozens of retail locations analyzed store traffic going back before COVID and, armed with new, granular information about its busiest times, changed frontline workers’ schedules to provide better coverage for customers as well as more convenient hours for employees. All the attendees said they want WFH and hybrid options to be part of their and their enterprises’ futures.

WFH was not without costs. Gains in productivity in some roles might have been offset by losses in others. Often, women in mid-level, operating, and front-line positions suffered far greater challenges due to the fact that they did not have a choice to work remotely or had fewer resources to help with childcare. These equity issues need to be on the table alongside gender issues as enterprises design future work.


2. Talent shortages are a short-term crisis. Coming out of COVID, competition for top talent is intense, and the most attractive candidates, male and female, can write their own ticket. This is especially true in upper-management ranks and for technical talent; all the women at the roundtable testified to that, some from personal experience. Broader economic indicators suggest that workers generally may be able to negotiate, at least for now, more flexible working arrangements as well as better pay.

The labor market is likely to find a new equilibrium—that’s what markets do. When it does, companies that have responded to the short-term pressure with long-term adaptations (flexible work arrangements or other benefits that make work-life integration easier, particularly for women) may enjoy a structural competitive advantage in the competition for talent. So they would be smart to devise and institutionalize responses to the immediate talent shortage that will be sustainable and productive later.


3. Talent development is a long-term necessity and opportunity. Leadership development programs and personal learning were a casualty of COVID. Some women found that the intermingling of home and work life encroached on professional development. As one said, “I just needed to survive and power through.” Another one put it: “I was so busy with my jobs that I put my career on hold.” Roundtable participants also said, however, that many employees found or displayed new capabilities during the urgent, all-hands response to pandemic disruptions and lockdowns.

These two phenomena—delayed learning and trial by fire—create an ideal environment to advance talent development and leadership training to a new level of maturity. Middle market companies often underinvest in human capital development, but there is now a significant pool of talent hungry for or deserving of support. Many (but by no means all) of them are women and minorities, so a program to ignite or reignite talent development would serve diversity goals, help retain talent, and build capabilities to drive growth.


4. A flexible workplace must support women’s careers, not just their current jobs. While WFH arrangements were remarkably successful, especially for women, they also tore some parts of the office social fabric. There were fewer microaggressions—but also less coaching. More process—but less serendipity. Less commuting—but less communicating. Thinking about the future, one participant asked, “How do we make sure that working from home doesn’t become a new ‘Mommy Track’?” where women become invisible to senior executives and most promotions go to those at the office full time. Preventing that will require significant rethinking of performance management, job design, and many other aspects of organizational design and talent planning. And, participants agreed, it is vital that women take leading roles in that work.

The Male Perspective

The subsequent session with male executives—all of whom described themselves as “allies” strongly supportive of creating a business environment that works better for women—was eye opening. Two observations stand out. First, good intentions notwithstanding, the men saw only part of the problem. Approximately half of those present were aware of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on their female coworkers, but none seemed to be aware of the even greater burden felt by their female colleagues of color. One possible reason for the awareness gap is the fact that women are still underrepresented on top teams. Only two of the participants in the intimate discussion said that they had women on the senior leadership team, but in both instances the seat they occupied was that of CHRO. In their organizations generally, women were hard to find in leadership positions in sales, operations, or roles with P&L responsibility. This identified a real opportunity for their organizations to create and formalize management and leadership development programs to nurture and retain top female talent. Second, the men all personally committed to addressing the concerns raised by their female colleagues about how the pandemic and virtual work environment are impacting their opportunities for mentoring and coaching. Connecting these good intentions to a structure, process, and program was another matter. This group of men, while committed to creating a more equitable workplace, was still somewhat unsure of how to advance these necessary and specific changes, not just in their behavior but also in their companies’ processes.


AchieveNEXT Programs and Resources for Developing Female Leaders

AchieveNEXT offers several resources to help individuals, teams, and enterprises deal with the fallout from the “she-cession” and the resulting future challenges.

Peer networking and group coaching. AchieveNEXT’s CFO Alliance and CHRO Alliance hold quarterly meetings online and around the country to provide insight and connections. For information about Q3 Roundtables, which focus on talent, visit AchieveNEXT.

Performance Cohorts are coming in September 2021 and January 2022. Consider inviting female leaders and their senior-level peers for group coaching to restart their leadership development journey. These cohorts provide leadership learning, support and care for women coming out of the pandemic. Executive coaching services for current and aspiring C-suite leaders in all functions and industries are also available.

Human Capital Solutions. AchieveNEXT’s diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting services help leaders assess, analyze, and adopt a comprehensive plan to build female- and minority-friendly policies and processes into all elements of talent strategy. Women also benefit from AchieveNEXT’s leadership development services, which create learning programs customized for the needs and scale of middle market and emerging enterprises.



Powered by the unique combination of Peer Learning Networks and integrated Talent Development and Performance Solutions, AchieveNEXT is an inspiring learning & development ecosystem that provides business leaders, teams, and enterprises with benchmarking, insights, and solutions to achieve next level growth.

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