In the balance
Women still face challenges to career advancement
The struggle for work-life balance was taking its toll on women professionals even before the pandemic struck. But the lack of child care and the burnout from increased workloads may now be driving some women business leaders and aspiring leaders out of the workforce altogether.
A May 19 Deloitte Global study, “Women @ Work: A global outlook,” found that a majority of 5,000 working women surveyed across 10 nations said they plan to leave their current employer within two years; nearly a quarter may leave the workforce for good.
And the September 2020 Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that before the pandemic, women held 28% of senior vice president roles and 21% of C-suite roles. But last summer, according to the report, one in four women in those top positions was thinking of leaving their jobs, compared with one in six men in such roles.
To prevent an exodus of women leaders, especially women of color, from the workplace, it’s time to truly commit to prioritizing work/life balance and flexible work options, says Donna C. Wertalik, a member of the Women in Business Leadership team at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business.
COVID-19 deepened women’s risks for unemployment, for losing their financial independence and for being exposed to domestic violence. Women also have been more exposed to health risks indirectly aggravated by the pandemic and lockdown, says Wertalik, director of marketing strategy analytics for the Pamplin College.
Since the pandemic began, 77% of women surveyed by Deloitte said that their workloads have increased. They reported a 35-point drop in mental wellness and a 29-point drop in motivation at work compared with before the pandemic.
Katherine Whitney, co-founder and director of Warren Whitney, a management consulting firm in Richmond that specializes in executive search, succession planning and board development, has seen the ways that the pandemic has hurt women leaders, and particularly next-generation women leaders.
“I’ve seen the struggle,” Whitney says. Working remotely can be efficient, but “on the other hand, it’s exhausting,” she says, citing the extreme amount of pressure “we put on ourselves or the company puts on us” to get everything done while working from home.
Whitney views one of her clients — an upper-level executive — as typical of women executives during the pandemic era. “She was working 13 hours a day and weekends. Her organization was really impacted by the pandemic. She is a next-generation leader. She didn’t give up, but it is not a fun life. And when people are working way too many hours, they make mistakes” and aren’t productive, she says.
Family-friendly policies such as flexible work, remote work, child care and parental leave are crucial when it comes to retaining women professionals, Wertalik stresses. She recommends supporting parents through online platforms and parenting groups and even offering workshops to improve children’s self-sufficiency and discipline.
“Ensure mental health and well-being are front and center as it relates to resources and true support,” she says. “Companies need to nurture their employees’ individual resilience. Without that human factor, even the most cutting-edge technologies won’t be enough.”
Family concerns aren’t the only reason women professionals leave the workforce. A 2015 LinkedIn study found that the No. 1 reason millennial women were exiting was a “lack of advancement opportunities.” Gen X and Baby Boomer women listed “dissatisfaction with senior leadership” as their top reason for leaving the workforce.
Poor promotion opportunities early on the career ladder — known as the “broken rung” — often drive a lack of diversity at higher levels.
“Ensure that the first level of management has the same demographic breakdown as your entry-level workforce. Make sure women get that first promotion. This is crucial,” Wertalik says, because once the employee pool begins to narrow in demographics, that’s amplified at each subsequent level of leadership.
Companies need to make a conscious effort to ensure that women are given opportunities to grow, she says, including “lateral opportunities to expand skill sets, chances to work on difficult projects, and direct access to leadership and mentorship.”
Before the pandemic, the average American female worker earned only
81 cents for every dollar the average male worker made, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But at least the gap was starting to narrow. Since the pandemic, the pay gap is widening. Economists project that the gap will widen by 5%, so that the average female worker will earn about 76 cents for every dollar the average male worker makes.
And the time it will take for that gender gap to close grew by 36 years in the space of just 12 months, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report. The report estimates that it will take an average of 135.6 years for women and men to reach parity on a range of factors worldwide, instead of the 99.5 years outlined in the 2020 report.
But Whitney says she does see more serious steps being taken toward pay equity. When she conducts executive searches, she finds some companies are willing to set compensation first, “instead of saying, ‘Let’s wait and see how low we can get.’ If the right person happens to be in a position that didn’t pay well, she shouldn’t have to live with that forever.”
In several recent cases, Whitney says she’s seen women receive big salary jumps from their previous positions “because the board believed it was the right thing to do to set the compensation and then find the person.”
But women need to do their part, too, Whitney continues. “I feel that women don’t negotiate as well for salaries. Women need to be willing to push a little bit harder.”
Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director of Housing Families First, a nonprofit emergency shelter in Henrico, agrees that men are more willing to advocate for themselves.
“There’s more of a push from men to be CEOs. More men will push for it and get it,” says Vann-Turnbull, who adds that she’s personally experienced “imposter syndrome,” a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their own skills, talents and accomplishments.
Looking around at other women professionals, “I don’t think I’m the only one who suffers from it,” Vann-Turnbull says.
To counter that, Whitney advises young women professionals to be “more intentional about your career paths. Don’t just let things happen. If you want to be CEO, ask yourself what experience do you need to have had? What are you going to do to get better in areas you need? Look at the skills. Map out what you need.”
And find a mentor who can help with that journey.
Or, Whitney suggests, a series of mentors, “people you learn from, who help you set up for success.”
Vann-Turnbull says she’s had informal mentors in fields similar to her own who have been “incredibly helpful. They can help you reframe issues. Or they can affirm that you haven’t taken a wrong term. They let you work things out.”
Organization consultants also can be helpful, she adds, providing perspective and a safe place to try out ideas.
Danielle Ripperton, executive director at the Children’s Museum of Richmond, finds that mentors have given her more confidence to accomplish her goals. Additionally, she recommends that women who want to move up the career ladder join professional associations and local community organizations so “you can see leaders out there. You don’t feel alone.”
She says she’s especially benefited from bosses — both male and female — who valued executive development. “I’m very lucky to be in a field that has growth opportunities and leadership experiences,” says Ripperton, who became head of the museum in December 2019.
“They didn’t make an assumption that, because I had a child, I didn’t want to go away for five days for a great leadership program. You need to ask and let people feel comfortable people saying yes or no. You need to have a culture where people feel comfortable” accepting or declining growth opportunities, she says.
Dee Ann Remo, founder, CEO and managing director of Heritage Wealth Advisors in Richmond, finds herself “a little more optimistic” now about how the aftershocks of the pandemic will affect the next generation of women leaders.
“I’m kind of glad we had the experience that proves that hybrid [employment] works. My hope is that we don’t go back to normal,” Remo says. She’s found that women managers are “delighted” when they find that they will be able to continue to make decisions about where and when they work.
Women have always needed work/life flexibility to move up the corporate ladder, Remo believes, but in the past that need often has been accompanied by a lag in their career advancement and the stigma that they weren’t as serious about their work.
“We just blew all that up” during the pandemic, she says, by demonstrating that people can work in different situations and still stay on track.
In the long run, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 may help close the gaps between men and women, Remo says. Previously, “women might have made the decision that their only choice was to work less hours. Now they might make the decision that they can work the same amount but at a different time or from a different place. They will be able to say, ‘I’m not asking to be on a different track. I’m just asking to be able to make wise decisions.’”
Companies that embrace the new way will win the talent war without giving anything up, she says. In any case, “women are going to say, ‘No, we’re not going back to the old way. We just showed you this works.’”
Read about this year’s Virginia Business Women in Leadership Awards.