Just weeks into COVID-19-spurred school and workplace closures last March, I began noticing a worrying trend. Upwardly mobile professionals across my social media networks were opting to pause their careers. They were overwhelmed by the new demands of their work lives and home lives.
The majority of those working parents were women and people of color. And it quickly occurred to me that their pulling back on their careers could pose a major setback for organizations, especially those that have prioritized improved diversity, equity and inclusion among their executive ranks and corporate boards.
My own background makes me especially sensitive to this perilous time for each of those three groups. I’m juggling childcare responsibilities as mom to four young boys with dual roles of teaching management courses and helping lead my university’s full-time MBA program as an assistant dean.
The latter prompts me, from the organizational perspective, to reflect on ‘What can be done, right now, to mitigate this?’ Consider that mothers often engage in “covering” in the workplace, downplaying or hiding their childcare responsibilities. Now, professionalism is more difficult to maintain as our homes are the video backdrops for our work. If children come into the frame, it can upend the professional images we have worked so hard to create. These challenges affect Black working mothers disproportionately, because Black employees are judged more harshly when using a traditionally white, upper middle class definition of “professionalism.”
Check out the most recent Women in the Workforce report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org. It shows about 1 in 5 mothers are considering dropping out of the workforce, at least temporarily, compared to 1 in 10 fathers. Black women are even more likely to consider dropping out or stepping back from their careers, citing pandemic concerns as a reason.
Consider further that U.S. Labor Department data showing women disproportionately comprising the 3.7 million workforce dropouts. Women accounted for 47% of the workforce in March, but they make up 54% of those who have exited.
At one point I went into my social feed and realized that five women I personally know had decided to leave their jobs. And when I told that to other people, everyone said they did too. This is why organizations must recognize challenges to their employees and work harder to support them.
For some employees, an opportunity to work part-time for six months or a year could make the difference between holding onto a career, or letting it go.
It’s by no means a perfect solution. Too often, women who adopt a 20-hour-a-week schedule end up working 35 or 40 hours anyway, but for far less pay. But in a time of COVID-19, adopting a part-time schedule makes some sense. It allows employees to maintain their place in the workforce, avoid a gap on their resume and can keep their career more-or-less on track.
But before opting for part-time employment, consider maxing out vacation and personal leave allocations, as well as explore potential leave options under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Managers: Check in on your employees regularly and offer support wherever possible. Some of them will be vulnerable, and if you don’t take a stand and make them feel seen, they could walk away. That means losing critical institutional knowledge and incurring the kinds of expenses and productivity setbacks that are so often incurred amid job vacancies and the new hire onboarding process, but it also means potentially losing women, Black, Indigenous and people of color who may have been in the pipeline for future top executive positions. The costs of a talent exodus can be vast and take organizations years to overcome.
For a company that has been cultivating certain women and people of color for top jobs, think strategically right now. Loop in your chief people officer and think about how you are going to support your employees and engage in succession planning. When you have talent working for you, you need to make sure they’re getting what they need. My bet is, in many cases, they are not. My own has checked in on me a few times in the past six months. And It means a lot. I feel I could go to her if I had to do something, if I was feeling like I needed to take time off or make some kind of change. That’s what all leaders should be doing. You want people to know that if they do face challenges, all is not lost.
Nicole Coomber is Assistant Dean of the Full-Time MBA Program and Associate Clinical Professor in in the Management & Organization area at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.