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How COVID-19 has stifled the pipeline for female talent

Amid COVID-19, a once-enthusiastic movement toward greater workplace diversity has lost energy and even taken a step back. In regard to gender, some say we are witnessing a female recession. “For the first time since they began a consistent upward climb in the labor force in the 1970s, women are now suffering the repercussions of a system that still treats them unequally,” writes journalist Chabeli Carrazana. She adds, “when the economy crumbled, women fell— hard.”

A number of things have happened during the pandemic. Women, already earning less than men, reduced their work hours to tend to family including both children and parents. They more readily picked up the slack for others around the home: getting their kids online every day for school, relinquishing their own computer time, ensuring meals were prepared, and generally striving to boost morale of those around them. Experts say that the gains that women have made have not been accompanied by cultural and structural change, such as meaningful improvements in childcare options. Thus, many women, and especially Black and Latina women, have been doing a “high-wire act” that is no longer sustainable.

These factors impact women in their current positions and also inhibit them from pursuing their career goals. In our work as executive search consultants, we’ve seen fewer women candidates for key leadership roles these past months. The pipeline is trending male again.

From where we sit, it may take years to get back to a point where women are putting their careers on a par with other priorities. Government action is critical to address the cultural and structural underpinnings of gender inequality. In addition, we believe that organizations, and the men and women who lead them, will need to be more proactive in supporting aspiring women leaders. The following are some critical priorities, which we believe need to be addressed.

Keep challenging our biases

Implicit bias continues to rear its head as a career deterrent for women leaders. There is the presumption, for instance, that men are better at handling the chaos and confusion of these difficult times. (More men than usual were being hired as CEOs during the first six months of the pandemic when, in fact, research suggests that women leaders may be more capable during crises.) More bias training and awareness is needed. If they haven’t done so already, professionals owe it to themselves to take the bias tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit, especially the “Gender-Career” test.

Hold leaders accountable for supporting women in their careers

C-suite leaders should be at the heart of and responsible for diversity and inclusion, while middle managers, on the front lines of their organizations, play a key role as well. BCG Group notes how leaders at this level directly influence the majority of workers yet receive just a small portion of their organizations’ attention in training.

Raise awareness of women’s career challenges

Many men continue to be resistant to change or negligent of the need for it. Men and women both must help to educate men on the issues of gender equity at work and especially those affecting women of color. A great place to start is Catalyst’s Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives  research series.

Reconstruct the work day

Recognize that the definitions of work and the workplace are changing amid the work-from-home phenomenon. The concept of work-life balance has given way to work-life integration. As such, understand the need for greater schedule flexibility and support regarding child care and maternity leave. Rethink and reset goals to help women professionals in, and out of, the workplace. Among the recommendations of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research are to increase workers’ control over their own hours and schedules, and to eliminate the 40-hour standard that tends to box women in and limit their options.

Create networks for women both internally and externally

It is critically important to create societies and communities for women to lead and build off each other’s experiences. Pay specific attention to strategic networks, which help women envision their futures and find the resources they’ll need to achieve their goals. A model initiative in our field is Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM), supported by Drexel University and to which we both passionately engage as past fellows. The program consists of intensive one-year leadership training and coaching, and follows that up with a lifetime of continued networking and learning opportunities for program alums.

Secure sponsorships

One reason women are not reaching the pinnacles of their organizations is that not enough sponsors are demanding that they be given opportunities to join the pipeline. Sponsors have the actual capital, not just the advice, to help women ascend the ladder. Set up programs for sponsorship as well as mentorship for all women but especially underrepresented groups such as Black and Latinx employees. Men, since they dominate the senior roles of most organizations, must be the drivers of this activity.

As the pandemic persists there needs to be a conscious effort to support women in their ascent to leadership positions—to encourage some of the cultural and structural changes that are needed. Without it, the pipeline for women will run dry.


Joyce De Leo, Ph.D. is a principal with the executive search firm WittKieffer. Deborah (Dee) Wing, M.D., M.B.A. is also a principal and co-leader of the firm’s Academic Medicine and Health Sciences Practice.

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