Beware a Leaky Pipeline of Women Leaders in the Time of COVID

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The pandemic has created stressors that disproportionately affect working mothers and may threaten the pipeline of women leaders and companies’ goals to diversify leadership. But there are steps that companies can take to guard against long-term impact.

For working parents September is a particularly hectic time. Managing back-to-school forms, carpools, new teachers, school shopping, and after-school schedules. All of this on top of a full plate of responsibilities at work! When I was serving in a demanding corporate leadership role with two young kids at home, I remember sometimes feeling completely overwhelmed (though of course I tried never to show it).

With COVID, the situation that working parents are navigating now makes a “regular” September look like a cakewalk. Across the country, many schools are starting with a complete or partial remote teaching model. Studies are finding that, in the U.S., families with children at home are spending an additional 29 hours/week on household duties as compared to pre-COVID levels—that is essentially double the number of hours pre-COVID. Of the 59 hours per week that families are spending on household duties, forty of them are spent supporting children with remote learning and caring for the kids who would normally be at school. Amortized over a 5-day workweek, that’s six extra hours every day.

While we are all in the same COVID storm, we are not all in the same boat. Working families are having to make decisions based on their individual circumstances, taking into account the professional, financial and support options available to them. Dina Milazzo recently left her job as VP Public Relations and Analyst Relations at tech company New Relic to move her family from California to Idaho. She decided to make this change to enroll her kindergartener and 3rd grader in school with in-person instruction. “I had a compassionate and supportive boss who told me to take time when I needed it. He was great. But I had a big job and the business needed to run. I couldn’t let things drop.” She explained, “My husband is disabled. For me and other women who are single moms, or don’t have family close by or the financial means to afford many hours of childcare, I don’t know what options you have. Something has to give.”

Each family has its own situation and decisions to make. For some dual-income families, it’s the working mother who takes on the main financial role. Melissa Poole, VP of Investor Relations and Finance at Hershey Corporation, explains “We have a 1st and 3rd grader. With our 1st grader still learning to read, she needs help getting online. The teacher is working hard, but she has 27 kids in the class. She can’t even see them all on the screen. We needed an adult close by to give encouragement and individualized feedback.” Poole decided with her husband that he would take a one-year leave of absence from his job as a music teacher while she focused on her job. “We are really fortunate that I have a role that enables me to support the family.”

Not surprisingly, parents with young children are concerned about their ability to perform at work, with over half of parents of children age 0-5 saying their ability to perform has dropped because of additional family and home responsibilities during the pandemic. A Boston Consulting Group survey found that even 31% of the parents of teens say that their ability to perform at work is being impacted during this time. For women leaders, with a broad scope of responsibilities, the demands are even more intense.

As was the case pre-COVID, women are carrying more of the load in most households. A study by BCG found that women are taking on 15 hours more per week in household duties than men during COVID. This extra burden may be the breaking point for some women. As Milazzo explained, “Even in senior roles, without unlimited funds, people can’t afford the support they need. And if there is someone with a vulnerability to contagion in the house, you can’t just have people coming in.” The stress on working families is becoming untenable.

There are steps that organizations and senior leaders can take to help ensure that their pipeline of women leaders won’t spring massive leaks:

Send a message encouraging employees to block the time they need for their caregiving responsibilities. For example, blocking an hour in the morning to get their kids settled for their remote classes. This needs to be pushed from the top down so that everyone understands this time shouldn’t be scheduled over.

Educate managers to proactively talk to their employees about what they need to meet their responsibilities at home and work. Just asking, “How are you?” is not enough. Most women leaders are reluctant to bring this up themselves. They may be afraid of not being seen as committed or capable. However, an experienced manager knows that providing flexibility at times like this breeds loyalty. In a trusting manager-employee relationship, both parties can work to identify concrete action to make the job more tenable in this time. That creates long term dividends for the company.

Consider changes to performance evaluations and talent reviews. Some organizations are adding questions to their reviews for 2020 asking about the impact of COVID and other external events on performance, thus normalizing the fact that everyone has been impacted. The wide disparity in personal situations this year can lead to major biases in talent reviews. For example, someone with young children unable to go to daycare or school has a very different situation that they can’t control. Leaders will need to look at the broader picture of someone’s performance and potential as they make succession decisions.

There is some backlash from non-parent employees who see accommodations as unfair to coworkers who sometimes have to carry the extra load or aren’t offered the same flexibility. In these cases, it’s critical to message why the support is in the best interests of the business and all employees. For example, if these experienced working mothers leave, the stress on the remaining employees will be even more intense.

Women now make up more than half of the college-educated workforce, and at least 40% of graduates of the nation’s elite business schools. To succeed in the long-term, companies need to provide the support working mothers need to succeed at work and at home. If we don’t, we will find that some of our key women leaders will leave to join companies that do.