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What Companies Must Do to Get Women Back to Work

It’s not just about making accommodations, it’s about understanding why those accommodations matter in the first place.

By Caitlin Abber

This time last year, I was meeting with my manager to discuss my upcoming maternity leave. I was due in early March, and if I took all 12 weeks of my paid parental leave, I’d be returning the first week of June. That was generous by most standards in the U.S., but I also wanted to see if it was possible for me to work from home a couple days a week, because, as a new mom, I couldn’t imagine sending a 3-month-old baby to daycare five days in a row. My manager was empathetic and agreed to my request, and I remember feeling so seen and heard and respected. More than anything, however, I remember thinking that this was a great company to be a woman at. 

Fast forward to June 2020, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, my request to work from home a couple days a week was a moot point. The entire company was working from home by then and would be for the foreseeable future. Still, when my maternity leave was up and I was dialing into Zoom meetings between feedings and dirty diapers, I never once felt like my manager or the rest of my team were put off by the demands of my situation: I was, and I am, a working mother, and for me to be able to work, both sides are going to need to compromise.

That is the reality of being a working woman in America today: Whether you’re a mother, taking care of an elderly parent, married, or even single, the typical 9-5 (or 9-7, depending on your industry) job doesn’t neatly line up with the demands and obligations of your life. Nothing proves this point further than all the women—millions of them (mostly Black and Latina women)—who, as of December, have been let go, quit, or otherwise lost their jobs, while men have actually started to advance in employment. As Claire Ewing-Nelson, of the National Women’s Law Center, told Forbes, “It’s not just that women are losing jobs, it’s that they lost them months ago and haven’t been able to find more work.”

To learn more about why women aren’t reentering the workforce as quickly as men, I spoke with Cate Luzio, the CEO of Luminary, a New York City-based networking and collaboration hub for women. Cate has been at the forefront of this issue that many are calling the “Shecession,” and speaking directly to companies about what needs to be done in order to get women back to work. While she’s ardent that policy changes need to be made on a national level (and hopefully the new Biden administration will be able to push some things though), she also sees this as an opportunity for companies to address the needs of working women head-on. Specifically, she calls out managers and management training as the key component of the solution. 

"Conversations don't happen unless you have a great manager who you have a really good dialogue and open communication with."

“If you don’t train managers to actually understand, empathize, lead, and manage, it won’t work,” says Cate. “We really have to get creative and rethink what this shift in work truly means. How do you get your employees engaged, even when some are still at home, maybe four days a week?”

For Cate, training managers is the number one priority, and it makes sense when you look not only at the statistics, but also at the personal anecdotes women have shared about their experiences working remotely over the last year—anecdotes about being required to attend Zoom meetings all day with their cameras on, even when they have young children at home who need help in the bathroom, or feeling like there’s no longer a distinction between the beginning and end of the work day. Managers need to be taught empathy and prioritize having women on the team, even if it isn’t as turnkey or cheap as hiring someone who doesn’t need any accommodations. “We’ve known for 20 plus years that diversity is better for business,” says Cate. “You’re going to have better returns. You’re going to have better voices around the table. And you’re going to be left in the dust as a company if you don’t invest in diversity. It’s the right thing to do.”

Before the pandemic, it was normal for many employees to be at their desks until 7pm, even if their work was done for the day (or their brains just couldn’t do anymore), but they shouldn’t have to play pretend anymore. Cate points out that managers, as well as the employees themselves, need to reconfigure their expectations for our new reality. “What is a hundred percent? I think that’s the bigger question. Does a hundred percent mean a hundred percent of your time ‘in the office?’ Because I could argue that for the three big banks that I worked for, people would say they were working a hundred percent, but 90% was on bullshit meetings.” Cate goes on to say that it is up to managers to sit down with employees and really hash out what is needed to get the job done, and where compromises can be made.

But, she urges, this is where the training, empathy, and prioritization comes in. “Those conversations don’t happen unless you have a great manager who you have a really good dialogue and open communication with. And [if you don’t have those things], there’s this huge fear of repercussions, consequences, and ramifications, because that manager could then go to their HR partner and say, ‘Oh, Caitlin had a baby. She’s not working a hundred percent. What do we do? Could we hire someone else?’”

Even after we are all vaccinated and can return to our offices, Cate believes that managers must stay vigilant, so as not to go back to the way things were. She gives the example of happy hours—once a traditional and occasionally mandatory part of company bonding—now being a thing of the past. “First of all, you can’t get people together at a bar like that. Even if you had it in your office, you’re already excluding people that can’t come in, that may only be able to come certain days a week. And third, it excluded many women before this.” If managers aren’t trained to recognize this bias, they are going to continue alienating and ultimately pushing women out, and these women’s careers, as well as the economy, will continue to suffer. 

For me personally, this year has completely evolved my stance on work—both what is possible, but more to the point, what is important. Last week, my daughter’s daycare was closed due to a Covid scare, which left my husband and I without any childcare, managing our full-time jobs while chasing after a now very curious, swiftly crawling 10-month-old. We gritted our teeth, ordered lots of takeout, and pushed through it. He ended up taking a day off, and I pulled out my laptop after we put her down for the night. The work needed to get done, one way or another, and while we were exhausted, neither of us felt any kind of outside pressure or anxiety about it. Our bosses weren’t angrily Slacking us, and no one was making us feel bad for the things we couldn’t control. Both of our companies were understanding, and that made all the difference. 

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

See more of Caitlin's articles

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