Marla Willner is TD Bank's Head of U.S. Commercial Credit Management and Strategic Initiatives. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
This year's Women's History Month hits at a critical time for working mothers. A year into the pandemic, approximately 2.4 million women have exited the U.S. workforce according to Bureau of Labor statistics. This is nearly twice as many men who have left the workforce during the same time.
Pew Research estimates that as many as 86% of women between the ages of 40-44 are mothers and many are the primary or sole caregivers for their families. According to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of the 11 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, were headed by females.
Balancing work and life can be precarious for mothers even in the best of times, but in the pandemic environment, it became impossible for many. Traditional childcare resources like daycare and school evaporated, and even as children began to return to school, parents had to deal with the fragility and chance that things could change quickly to remote or hybrid learning.
This pandemic has revealed flaws in our existing structure that will not go away even after the pandemic ends. Many of these issues may be out of the control of an individual leader—better infrastructure for childcare, more equitable family leave, and better emergency paid time off, for instance—but there are ways that each of us can help.
Re-Assess How You Measure Performance
Leaders can create a more equitable workplace by re-evaluating how performance is measured. Traditional informal corporate metrics like "face time" at the office sometimes punish employees balancing caregiver responsibilities on top of their careers.
Instead, look closely at each role, and ask what success looks like in the position and how you might measure it. Is it really spending more time at work? Or is it driving portfolio growth, thinking innovatively about solutions, providing flawless customer service, or just getting the job done regardless of where you do it.
Answering these questions will help you define your own expectations for employees and roles, which is a vital first step in being able to help them meet and exceed those expectations.
Once you have a clear understanding of what success looks like in a position, communicate that clearly with your team. A Gallup study showed that only half of employees report feeling they understand what is expected of them. Communicating often and clearly helps combat that and creating specific performance metrics lets employees know where they stand. It also helps clarify what is and is not expected.
By being transparent with your team, you begin to find places where you might be able to be flexible to help your employees—and where you might need them to be flexible to help you. For employees who are juggling childcare with their work responsibilities, finding areas of flexibility can be extremely helpful.
Fix Broken Ladders
Much of the focus has been on increasing the number of women in executive positions, but studies show that most women fall off the corporate ladder long before the executive level. LeanIn's famous "Broken rung" study showed that the biggest obstacle in most women's careers is actually the first step up to a management position. They took longer to be promoted and then often stagnated just before that first manager position. In the pandemic, we have seen all too many women fall off the ladder entirely.
Ask yourself how you can help repair that rung. Sponsorship is an important tool that we don't use often enough. As Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, said in her powerful TED Talk, "A mentor, frankly, is a nice to have, but you can survive a long time in your career without a mentor… You are not going to ascend in any organization without a sponsor." A sponsor is someone who speaks on behalf of their employees and advocates for them behind closed doors. As a leader, you can be that vital sponsor for someone.
Building A Better Workplace for All
Taking these steps to improve the workforce for working women will help all of us. Women contribute $7.6 trillion to the U.S.'s GDP each year, according for the Center for American Progress. They estimate that as much as $64 billion could be lost in the next year through the dropping employment among working mothers alone.
Transforming the workplace is vital for our country and our economy. This pandemic has been a tragedy on an unimaginable scale, and it challenges us to re-evaluate how we do business. Women have made incredible strides in the past decade, and it is up to us to make sure that we build the bridges necessary for the generations behind us.