By now you’ve seen the headlines: We’re shaping up for a frightening winter. With rising COVID-19 cases, uncertainty still in our political landscape and lasting economic hardships being felt by millions of Americans, our collective feelings of anxiety are more than the winter blues. We all should be reminded this holiday season to check on our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. And, as the data clearly and unfortunately shows, we should be paying special attention to the women.
The economic impact of COVID-19 has dramatically and disproportionately impacted women, especially from communities of color. As of October, there were 4.5 million fewer women employed than there were a year ago. Joblessness among women hovers around 6.5 percent, but jumps to 9.2 percent for Black women and 9 percent for Hispanic women. Business closures in industries that traditionally are made up of more women, like hospitality, as well the strain families are feeling around childcare demands with school closures is driving women to leave the workforce at an unprecedented rate.
Childcare and other household demands have always disproportionately fallen on women, but the pandemic has increased this unequal division of labor, with women citing childcare as a reason for change in employment three times more than men. A recent working paper on the pandemic’s impact developed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that these inequalities at home are creating a mirrored effect of driving persisting inequality in the workplace. Women’s leaving the workforce not only exacerbates existing gender imbalances — it creates major gaps in the talent pipeline that could be felt for decades to come.
As president of Barnard College, an institution devoted to educating and empowering women, I’m doing all that I can to ensure that young women have all the tools and skills they need to enter and thrive in the workforce. But as a cognitive scientist who has spent her career working in a male-dominated field — and studying how gender bias impacts us on a psychological level — I’m worried.
When it comes to promoting and supporting gender equality in the workplace, women are their own best advocates. Over 50 percent of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, while only 40 percent of senior-level men say the same. Women are also far more likely to mentor other women. And, despite what a severely critiqued recent paper suggests, research shows that women benefit from having women mentors. If we have less senior women in the workplace, this means less support for women at all levels.
For those struggling to adapt to a work from home setting, this lack of a strong network of mentors is serious. Studies show that having positive social relationships at work not only help improve our personal mental health, but contributes to higher productivity and better performance. In other words, a workplace where women lack female companionship can have a lasting detrimental impact on their ability to succeed — both in the workplace and in their personal lives.
During the holiday season we know that depression rates rise. We also know that COVID-19 has had an outsized impact on our collective mental health. What’s also important to note, is that research shows a significant correlation between gender inequality and mental health. Women experiencing gender inequality firsthand — whether that be working in a male-dominated office environment or having an unequal division of labor at home — have shown increased rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles.
While many companies have established policies and safeguards to better support women in the workplace in the last five years, now more than ever, they need to double-down on their approach to building a more equitable and supportive workplace. For women in particular working in a remote work environment, it’s crucial to establish formalized channels for mentorship, networking and even just friendly conversation.
As we approach the season for end-of-year performance reviews, it’s also a good reminder for managers to practice empathy through the review process. Anxiety and stress impacts performance — whether you are working an entry-level job or are at the top of your career, my own research shows that even the best of the best have a tendency to choke when the stakes are high and the pressure is on. By practicing a little forgiveness given the outsized challenges we’ve all faced this year, we can build a more supportive workplace for all.
Finally, as companies plan their strategies for the year ahead, family policies should be a focal point for reconsideration. By taking into account the “second shift” the vast majority of women with families experience, companies can provide more robust safeguards to ensure female talent is supported not only through every phase of their career, but every phase of their personal life as well. By supporting people to bring their whole selves to work – and providing the corresponding workplace flexibility that supports this — companies can boost productivity and increase their bottom line.
We’ve all been put through the ringer this year, especially women. But we don’t have to make the changes brought about by COVID-19 a lasting setback in the march towards greater gender parity in the workplace. As companies look to “build back better,” lets home in on retaining and supporting women for the long term.
Dr. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, is president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
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