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At the start of the pandemic, there was some initial jubilation over being forced out of our offices to work from home. It seemed so much easier. Commutes vanished – to the point some people were reinventing shorter versions, to help attain the proper mindset for the working portion of the day or to symbolically mark its end. We could take a break during the day’s Zoom meetings to throw some food in the oven and return to work. It seemed, in a way, civilized.

But we were missing something: Gender. With the kids at home, everyone underfoot, the house messier, and work stretching beyond the normal office hours given ease of access to computers and colleagues working different hours the burden was not falling evenly between men and women. More was happening than just Zoom fatigue.

McKinsey & Company found one in four women are considering stepping out or stepping back from the workplace – much higher than the previous six years of research. COVID-19′s impact has fallen heavily on women, and they are bailing out – temporarily or permanently. Gallup research also found their measured well-being slipped further than men’s as levels of stress and worry rose.

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In her book The Good Boss, Kate Eberle Walker uses the game Chutes and Ladders – more often known as Snakes and Ladders – as a metaphor for women’s careers. They have difficulty ascending the best promotional ladders and too often slide down the longest chutes. It would seem many women are finding themselves back at the starting point of the pandemic version, frustrated and wondering whether to try again or just quit the game.

Lareina Yee, a senior partner and McKinsey’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said in a recent podcast that we are at a crossroads or precipice. Senior management in all companies must acknowledge this danger and act, particularly since women in the top ranks – not just lower in the organization – are heavily affected.

“What we hear and see from senior women is this sense of exhaustion and this feeling of burnout like they always have to be on; like the responsibilities have magnified in ways that are really profound,” adds Alexis Krivkovich, another senior partner with McKinsey. “And the lack of boundaries and expectations of when you’re in the office, when the offices come to you, has become particularly challenging for them.”

It’s back to the long-standing quandary of the double shift – women coming home from work, perhaps figuratively more than literally these days, to find they have another job facing them. Men are improving, sharing more of the family responsibilities, but Ms. Yee says there is still a significant mismatch shown by the fact 77 per cent of men think that they carry the load equally at home while only 40 per cent of women agree. And that covers families with a man and woman at home; many women are single parents with main responsibility for the children.

Some of this can best be fixed at home by the individuals. But organizational leaders can’t wait for that and must act. They are and will continue to be losing talent. As female senior executives leave we default to having fewer (maybe only one or two) in the senior team, making it harder on them, and role models and mentoring for younger women reduce or disappear.

Interestingly, Gallup finds women generally more engaged at work than men and having higher rates of work satisfaction. “Even during the pandemic and the plummeting well-being and rising burnout it brought, work is something that women want to do – it provides them with meaning and value,” Jane Miller, president and chief operating officer at Gallup, and Jennifer Robison, the company’s senior editor, write on its website.

They urge companies to document and detail the employee experience of working moms and parents. Ask them what they need to be successful and stay in the job. “Add it to your risk mitigation strategy in the same way you do finance, governance or competitive intelligence – after all, human capital is your most important asset,” they say.

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When hiring or promoting managers, they advise you to put a premium on those who are naturally caring. Help them to make the right changes in expectations and responsibilities for those they care for. Back that by ensuring they understand the importance for the organization of diversity and equity – that it’s a bottom line issue, not a frill or sop to interest groups.

The future will probably evolve to be hybrid working arrangements for many people. “It’s time to use creativity in scheduling. Meeting your customers’ needs is a priority, but so is making schedules that work for your employees’ performance, potential, well-being, and life. Think about how you can support workers so they can accomplish great outcomes,” the Gallup duo write.

At the same time as we want equity in the workplace we need to accept that getting there involves compensating for the inequities in gender roles in our broader society. The pandemic has reminded us of this reality and we are, at best, at a crossroads, and at worse, in a crisis where the all-too-modest gains of recent years will be lost.

Cannonballs

  • A year after the pandemic started, it’s a good time for an after action report to capture your learning on paper. Then ask your direct reports to do the same, either separately or in a group meeting.
  • The EY Consumer Index in its pandemic research has identified five different cohorts of consumers: Affordability first (32 per cent of consumers), health first (25 per cent), planet first (16 per cent), society first (15 per cent) and experience first (12 per cent).
  • Research suggests a way to help women advance in male-dominated industries is to create longer interview short lists when recruiting, so they aren’t squeezed out by the first (male) names that come to mind. This works particularly well when recruitment is informal, based on colleague recommendations and word-of-mouth networks.

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