We Are Women: Hear Us Roar (Before We Quit)

Last week, the latest Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and LeanIn.org was released, ironically coinciding with the death of Australian singer Helen Reddy, who was famous for her Grammy-winning hit “I Am Woman: Hear Me Roar.”

Like the song, the report had one clear refrain: Disproportionately affected by the Covid crisis, women — particularly working mothers — are roaring, asking to be heard.

Will their message fall on deaf ears? Or will organizations realize now is their time to lean in and support their female workforce in the face of the unprecedented challenges 2020 has brought?

“What we are seeing in this report should terrify all of us,” said Sheryl Sandberg, author of the best-selling book from which the Lean In movement originated, in an interview with NPR. “We are pulling the alarm bell here.”

As a board director, my job is to protect the long-term interests of shareholders. How will that be possible if one in four women, or one in three mothers, downshift their careers or opt out entirely? We could lose as many as two million women from our workforce at a time when shareholder demands for progress on diversity, inclusion, and equality are intensifying.

Just as organizations are starting to contend with the systemic barriers faced by certain employees, the report illuminates some of the disparities between employee cohorts and makes clear the dismal point from which Black employees, particularly Black women, are starting.

Black women have always faced greater obstacles to advancement, and the circumstances of 2020 have only strengthened the headwinds against them. They are twice as likely as women overall to say the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges this year, and they’re dealing with the disproportionate impact of Covid on the Black community, along with the emotional toll exacted by racial violence in recent months.

Study after study has shown that diverse workforces are more productive and successful. In fact, research shows that company profits and share performance can be up to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top. Diversity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart business. So a failure to stem this impending crisis could credibly be considered a dereliction of duty by leaders to create and preserve long-term shareholder value.

The time has come for corporations to send a clear message to women: The problem isn’t you: It’s us.

This Is Why Belonging Matters

I’ve written before about how diversity and inclusion efforts are futile in the absence of belonging. Belonging is to employees what gravity is to an astronaut — the gravitational pull that helps retain them — and it’s particularly critical during times of stress and uncertainty.

The existential question running through employees’ minds right now is: What’s holding me here? And it’s the strength — or not — of the belonging your company offers that answers it. Crises bring peoples’ personal “why” to the forefront and thus are a litmus test for belonging — one that corporations are categorically failing when it comes to women.

Whenever you hear Black women say that they don’t feel they can bring their whole selves to work, or that mothers don’t feel comfortable telling their teammates about the challenges they’re facing, or that women feel blindsided by decisions that are made about their careers, you can see the bruising effects of the absence of belonging.

During times of stress and separation, belonging needs to capture employees with a greater level of intensity and depth than it does in peacetime. It needs to show them that they’re an essential member of the team. And that sense of “membership” has to be strong enough to counterbalance the pull of things the crisis has revealed as more important in their lives.

When belonging is lacking, the very talent we want to retain the most may begin to see work as an added cost to an already burdened life, rather than an essential benefit or a place that offers them social support and helps to minimize the impact of stress.

Double Shifts = Double Standards

Not surprisingly, the area in which most women and mothers need support are childcare and household duties. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic.

Cultures of belonging, aside from being supportive of each individual and their circumstances, are places where we feel trusted and, more importantly, feel we can place our trust in.

When women say they worry their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities, or that they feel pressure to be “always on,” it points to an underlying lack of trust — a key predictor of belonging — when it is most required.

Another driver behind women’s decisions to downshift or quit is a lack of flexibility, and while many companies have instituted flexible work policies during this time, clearly more needs to be done. There’s little point in having such policies if people feel they’ll be judged or punished if they take advantage of them. As one female investment banker put it: “Feeling that you had a bullseye on your back if you ever left the office early kinda flies in the face of flexibility.”

The issue with these policies is that they’re often one-size-fits-all. Given the experiences of men, women, employees of color, parents, etc. are distinctly different, a more nuanced approach is required.

Target Universalism

Professor John Powell of the University of California, Berkeley, is a proponent of “Target Universalism” as a means of addressing structural or systemic inequalities. While his work focuses mostly on racial inequality, the concept still applies.

Target Universalism is when you have a universal goal for everyone but targeted strategies for individual cohorts, recognizing that each group is not starting from the same place. The approach also looks at what’s required to get each cohort to the same universal goal, rather than focusing on the disparities between groups. It gives you a way of being gradient and particular, without saying you only care about certain less-privileged groups.

This helps to neutralize the notion of one group feeling they have to give up their supposed “privilege” in order for another to benefit, and it challenges the notion that the starting point of the “privileged group” is what the benchmark should be.

Applied to the trends in this year’s report, specific policies that address the differing needs of women, mothers, women of color, and others are likely to be more effective than broad strokes that try to solve for everyone’s circumstances at once.

What Can Managers Do?

Along with a new approach to policies and practices, there’s a lot that managers can do to foster a culture of belonging. First, assure employees that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help when you need it. Solicit their input in the design of any new policies that are aimed to help and keep things in perspective. Like all crises, this too shall pass. Doubling down on your support for those who need it now will pay dividends in the future in terms of employee engagement and loyalty.

A colleague of mine worked for John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, for many years. Throughout her career, as she was balancing work with raising children, there were times she wanted to quit. Every time she broached the topic, however, Chambers would say that he thought of her and her colleagues as you would a baseball team: sometimes you’re up to bat, and other times you’re on the bench. Encouraging her to hang in there and assuring her that it was okay if she needed to be on the bench kept her on the team and engendered huge loyalty and commitment to Cisco over many subsequent years.

“I Am Woman: Hear Me Roar” became an anthem for women around the world, and it still resonates. What is clear from this year’s report is that women are throwing the flag, but not yet throwing in the towel. They’ve made their situations known. The onus is now on us to respond and create policies, environments, and cultures in which every woman feels she belongs.

Board Director, Advisor, Writer, Speaker & General Disruptor