Photo of employees in a conference room.

5 ideas to support women in the workplace after a pandemic setback

Picture of Amy Friedrich.

Amy Friedrich is president of U.S. Insurance Solutions at Principal® and a loyal advocate for the small- and medium-sized business community. She originally wrote this as a member of Forbes Business Council.

Like so many women in the workplace, I’ve had that uncomfortable conversation about competing priorities at work and at home.

I have two teenage daughters whose mental health and well-being were suffering through pandemic-related isolation. Over the years I’ve been their close confidant and a problem solver, and they needed even more of that support during the last 18 months. It’s been hard to give them what they need while staying on top of my own well-being, not to mention keeping up with the demands of work in an extraordinary year for the insurance industry.

But my daughters needed me. So I went to my leader and asked for flexibility.

It was a credit to him that he made me feel nothing but comfortable in extending the latitude I needed. But I realize that many business cultures—whatever your role—encourage us to take everything in stride and keep our personal challenges to ourselves.

Asking for support at work shouldn’t be taboo. But I know firsthand those dreaded conversations can stir feelings of shame, embarrassment, or anxiety about career consequences if we need a hand. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t build a stronger, more stable, and more inclusive economy without honest conversation about the support we need to bring our full and authentic selves to work.

This is particularly important for women, according to recent data.

Last year was a serious setback for women in the workplace. Women lost 5% of their jobs worldwide in 2020, compared to men losing only 3.9%.

What a stall for meaningful progress. Although women remain underrepresented across corporate America, one McKinsey study reported that, pre-pandemic, more women had been reaching senior vice president and C-suite roles like mine.

But then last year’s challenges led one-fourth of us to consider leaving our jobs, compared to one-fifth of men. The same McKinsey study shows the starkest disparity for working parents of children under 10: Women in this group were 10 percentage points likelier to consider quitting to rebalance our lives.

Graphic stating that women lost 5% of their jobs in 2020 compared to men losing 3.9%.

It’s no wonder. Adequate childcare is still a big issue, and largely a woman’s burden. More than double the number of women in the United States missed work last year due to childcare issues. They represented 84% of all employees in 2020 who missed work in the average month to care for kids.

Fortunately, employers are recognizing this urgent need and rising to the challenge.

The Principal Financial Well-Being IndexSM, our ongoing survey of business leaders, earlier this year showed about one-fifth of businesses increasing both childcare support and caregiving benefits. And these businesses see childcare support as a crucial tactic to help retain employees.

We must build on this momentum.

It’s just good economics on top of good citizenship. Business owners can see that supporting women in this way benefits both the balance sheet and society at large. An eight-year study by Morgan Stanley Research found that companies with more gender diversity generally enjoyed a greater return on equity with lower volatility.

Here are 5 ideas for every business to support women at work—starting now:

1. Support parents and caregivers through policies that promote flexibility.

Help them excel at their jobs while also handling their personal lives. Pandemic disruption taught us to innovate on how we collaborate and structure team schedules. When some hear “policy” they may picture a human resources handbook, but I picture a compassionate conversation in which employees feel your emotional investment in them as people.

2. Use employee benefits as essential tools to do the right thing for your people as well as your business.

Benefits such as group disability insurance or an employee assistance program (EAP) can offer crucial help at the most stressful times.

3. Be vocal and transparent about how your business promotes a flexible and supportive workplace.

In today’s hyper-branded and -connected market, the greater risk to your business is to sit on the sidelines, unchanged by last year’s events. Employees want to work for a company that broadly reflects their values—and is unafraid to share them publicly.

4. Offer mentor and peer support.

You don’t need a large staff with committees. Smaller businesses can connect employees with role models in the community willing to spend time on career mentoring. Build your local community of small business leaders—including women of diverse backgrounds. It’s worth the effort.

5. Practice corporate and community philanthropy.

Explore channels outside your core business that still fit your scope and budget. For instance, Principal® Foundation partnered with nonprofit microlender Kiva to support 3,356 women small business owners across 19 countries in 2020.

Women as much as men deserve to become business professionals with fulfilling careers. We knew this long before the pandemic, and we can’t let a setback become a crisis.

Your own business may depend on it—not to mention our economy.

What’s next?

This communication is intended to be educational in nature and is not intended to be taken as a recommendation.

Disability insurance has exclusions and limitations. Costs and coverage details can be obtained from your financial professional.

Insurance products issued by Principal National Life Insurance Co (except in NY) and Principal Life Insurance Co. Plan administrative services offered by Principal Life. Principal National and Principal Life are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.