Lost Gains

A new study warns the COVID-19 pandemic has set back working women’s advancements in corporate management.
Helping Hands - Brittany Cycholl of Franklin has been working at home while her husband, Danny, is a stay-at-home dad for their son, Gus. //. Courtesy of Brittany Cycholl
Helping Hands – Brittany Cycholl of Franklin has been working at home while her husband, Danny, is a stay-at-home dad for their son, Gus. //. Courtesy of Brittany Cycholl

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have forever altered how organizations conduct business, it also has undercut many of the advances women have made in recent years in reaching the C-Suite, sitting on powerful boards, and running a business. Working mothers with young children have been especially negatively affected by the virus, due to school and day care center closings.

Last fall, McKinsey & Co., in partnership with leanin.org, released its sixth annual Women in the Workplace study based on data gathered from 317 companies, surveys of more than 40,000 people who were asked about their workplace experiences, and 45 in-depth interviews.

Among the findings was that “one in four women considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce and that women in senior roles, working mothers, and working women of color were most at risk.”

The study issued a warning to corporate America due to the stresses and lack of child care options created by the pandemic: “Companies risk losing women in leadership — and future women leaders — and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

During President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, broadcast live in late April, he told the nation that 2 million women dropped out of the workforce because they “didn’t have adequate care for their children or elderly parents.” Some pundits have called this trend a “She-Cession.”

Rachel Thomas, CEO and co-founder, along with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, of leanin.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals” through education and coordinated peer groups around the world called Lean in Circles, says she’s perplexed by the wave of job losses.

“We knew that women would be proportionately hit hard from the pandemic, but what was so disheartening was the scale of the problem, and that senior-level women are feeling additional pressures,” Thomas says. “They’re having to work harder than men at the same level and, therefore, are more likely to be burned out and say they’ll leave the workforce.”

When McKinsey & Co. and leanin.org publish their Women in the Workforce 2021 report in September, they hope to obtain a more accurate account of what further consequences may have resulted from the pandemic.

“In part, we’ll be looking to see if fewer women have been promoted over the last year and whether they were provided accommodations to ensure that they could rise to the occasion for a new and demanding role,” Thomas says. “You do worry that the ‘motherhood penalty,’ which has always been a problem for women, will be worse. One also wonders if young women, early in their career, having seen what working mothers are going through, will think, ‘I don’t ever want to sign up for that.’ ”

Prior to the pandemic, Thomas and others were feeling good that the representation of women in corporate America was slowly trending in the right direction, especially in senior management positions.

The 2020 McKinsey/leanin.org study found that between 2015 and 2020, the share of women grew to 28 percent from 23 percent in senior vice president roles, and to 21 percent from 17 percent in C-Suite roles.

At entry-level management positions (“the first rung”), however, women held 38 percent of available positions, while men held 62 percent, according to the study. “If an organization really wants a sustained pipeline, they have to be laser-focused at the early manager level and get more equitable outcomes. But I also tell companies to study their data to see if there are other broken rungs elsewhere up the ladder,” Thomas says.

Numerous studies have indicated — and, increasingly, companies are witnessing — that there’s an economic advantage to having women in management positions.

McKinsey & Co. stated in its 2018 report, Delivering Through Diversity, that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have superior value creation.” In a 2019 study produced by S&P Global, Dr. Daniel Sandberg found that “firms with female CEOs and CFOs have produced superior price performance compared to the market average, and the firms with gender diversity on their board of directors were more profitable and larger than firms with low gender diversity.”

Lori Costew, chief diversity officer and director of people strategy at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, says she isn’t surprised by the most recent findings. “When you dig deeper into the research, you find that women leaders tend to be more collaborative, empathetic, and team-focused — all attributes that lead to innovation, decision-making, and employee engagement,” she says.

Ric DeVore, regional president for Detroit and Southeast Michigan at PNC Bank, has a 26-person leadership team evenly split between men and women, but female business leaders hold top positions in a variety of areas at the financial institution. “We believe our commitment to developing and promoting outstanding women leaders gives us a competitive advantage,” he says. “Pay equity also pays a critical role in creating a culture, and attracting and retaining diverse talent so that we can better compete in the marketplace. We’re proud that on average, among our employees, women are paid 99 percent of what men are paid within like roles.”

Many observers believe the pandemic has finally revealed that this country’s inadequate child care system caused many women to leave work to take care of their children, as numerous providers had to halt their services temporarily. In one forecast last year, the Center for American Progress estimated that as many as 4.5 million child care slots could be permanently lost due to the pandemic.

“For women it’s a vicious cycle where, if we don’t have child care policies or workplace policies to support caregivers, it’s harder for women to be part of the workplace,” says Julie Kashen, senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation. She notes that during World War II, the U.S. had a national child care system while men were fighting the war and women were working in arsenal factories.

“After the war we got rid of it, and haven’t had it since,” Kashen says. “Fifty years ago, Congress passed a comprehensive child care bill, but President Nixon vetoed it. That was the last time we were able to talk about developing a child care infrastructure.”

However, during his recent address to Congress, President Biden proposed the “American Families Plan,” which includes $225 billion toward covering some child care costs for low-income and middle-class parents with children age 5 or younger, and another $225 billion for a national paid family and medical leave program for partial employment assistance for three months, allowing parents to be with a new child, rehabilitate from an illness, or care for a disabled family member.

He also advocated a minimum wage of $15 an hour for child care workers, who historically have been underpaid.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Congress has passed several COVID relief packages that include millions for emergency paid leave, family leave, sick pay leave, funds to help stabilize the child care sector, and child care tax credits.

Still, Kashen says, “The relief packages were just Band-Aids, because we still need to build a comprehensive child care system that should have been in place before the pandemic. The reality is we haven’t created the systems or policies to truly support working parents. Many just say, ‘That’s your own individual problem to solve.’ Instead, they should be asking, ‘How can we solve this together?’ ”

Brittany Cycholl of Franklin, an associate principal and head of the change management team at umlaut, a global consultancy and engineering firm specializing in automotive, telecommunications, energy, and aviation, has been working from home while her husband, Danny, a former engineer, serves as a stay-at-home dad for their almost 2-year-old son, Gus.

“Danny and I decided that he would be the principal caregiver, and we thought that was best for our family,” says Cycholl, who is pregnant. “Many families depend on two incomes, but we decided we were willing to trade my husband’s income for more family time. I’ve also been lucky because I work for a company that has flexible working hours and strongly believes in promoting and supporting women leaders. I’ve been able to switch between ‘mom Brittany’ and ‘corporate Brittany,’ and to communicate what my needs are,” says Cycholl, who wasn’t only promoted after the birth of her son, but she successfully convinced umlaut to change company policy by adding four weeks of paid maternity leave.

In the spirit of trying to assist other working mothers with the challenges they face, she regularly posts resources and advice on a blog, and wrote a children’s book, “Freckle Faced Gus and A Stay-at-Home Dad.” She shares 5 percent of the book’s proceeds with working mothers, to help defray expenses for those who don’t receive maternity leave from their employers.

“For any mother working from home with young kids, my heart goes out to them because, as they tell me, they’re having to be ‘on’ at all hours of the day,” Cycholl says. “I tell them through my blog that they have to be more vocal about what they require during these tough times, so they can have a career and a family.”

One company that appears to have not just “talked the talk” but also “walked the walk” is Ford. “Fortunately, at Ford we haven’t seen an increase in attrition with women, and I think it’s because we stay close to our teams by regularly holding listening sessions to understand what people need,” Costew says. “The pandemic put us all in the same ocean, but we’re all in different boats — so we find out what people need to survive this pandemic. When you have great talent, you don’t want to lose it.”

She adds that 89 percent of employees surveyed were satisfied with the company’s pandemic response, including several support programs for salaried employees that help secure retention, such as a “Safe at Home” program that provides back-up care with costs partially subsidized by Ford, tutoring service discounts, and up to an hour of complimentary homework assistance in select subjects through Sylvan Learning Centers.

The automaker also offers flexible work arrangements, including alternative 40-hour work schedules, part-time work with a prorated salary, and enhanced sabbaticals allowing employees to take up to three months off while continuing to receive 25 percent of their salary and continued benefits. There are also additional family care options and well-being programs that support mental health, including virtual mindfulness meditation sessions.

In March, Ford added to the offerings by introducing a new hybrid work model that incorporates both remote and on-site workdays as needed. Overall, around 30,000 white-collar office workers can continue to work from home indefinitely, with flexible hours approved by their managers. 

“I’m personally happy that I don’t have to do an hour commute every day because that gives me more time to do whatever I need to do, whether it’s my work, family, or doing something for myself like exercise” says Costew, who’s now in her 28th year at Ford.

Years ago, when her children were much younger, she was able to retain her position as a Ford manager and work fewer hours. “I was part time for about seven years, and was still able to take on challenging assignments and progress in my career,” she notes.

Sylvia Veitia, executive vice president in charge of operations and customer experience at Ford Credit in Dearborn, learned firsthand the challenges of working remotely during the pandemic with her husband, Scott Baker, a music copyright litigation attorney, and their children, ages 11, 20, and 22, who were all at home, learning remotely.

“It’s been very challenging working 16-hour days while addressing the company’s many international pandemic-related issues and, as a mother, (dealing with) the added responsibilities I didn’t have pre-pandemic, with all three children together,” she says. “We all had our unique challenges — like the ones in college, who had internships canceled, lack of social interactions, and dinner every night with mom and dad, which I’m sure isn’t the dream of every 20- and 22-year-old. We all became very agile at solving problems we had never (experienced) and became appreciative of a new level of quality time that we didn’t have before.”

Because she’s responsible for 4,000 Ford employees across the globe, Veitia didn’t utilize Ford’s flex time options and other offerings to help employees face the pandemic, but she did hear from many employees who benefited from them and expressed appreciation.

“One that stands out came from a father who said that if Ford hadn’t provided the sabbatical option, he wouldn’t have been able to stay with the company where he had worked for nearly 20 years because he has a child with special needs,” Veitia says.

“We didn’t have any significant attrition in any area because of a lack of flexibility, and I think we’ve earned a huge amount of loyalty from our employees,” she adds. “Any employer who accommodates an employee’s specific needs, be they women or men, gets 10 times your energy back.”

Rachel Thomas says she’s hopeful that the greater public discourse on the challenges faced by working mothers during the pandemic will lead to some reforms and that we’ll see more opportunities for working mothers to advance into leadership positions at companies.

“A lot of companies have been stepping up, and we need more of them to support and advance women, but we also really need to fix the child care infrastructure and get the fundamentals right,” Thomas says.

Female Support

leanin.org offers numerous resources for women during the pandemic, including:

• How to advocate for yourself at work during the pandemic.

• How to be a good coworker and leader during the crisis.

• Staying connected to your community while physical distancing.

• Juggling work and home life during the pandemic.

• Reframing personal and professional success during COVID-19.

• Managing stress and anxiety in an uncertain world.

• Finding opportunities for self-care during COVID-19.

• Supporting others through the pandemic.

How to cope with job loss during the pandemic.