This year, the World Economic Forum traded the snowy slopes of Davos, Switzerland, for a digital meeting themed “The Great Reset.” At the event’s virtual Equality Lounge, the Female Quotient heard from business luminaries who are accelerating change on a global scale.
We delved into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender equality, the growth mindset and the future of work. Here’s what we learned.
The future of work
People may be socially distanced right now, but we’re more socially connected than ever before. We have found a way to stay together without being physically present in an office environment. Post-pandemic, will we continue to work from home? Will we source better talent if moving for a job is no longer a make-or-break requirement?
“There is an exciting path here, a hybrid approach,” said Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO, Deloitte US. “There are times when we should be together, and we need to maximize the quality of that time. There are also things that don’t need to be done in person. Let’s afford the flexibility for people to spend less time commuting, to lower their carbon footprint…to achieve their career objectives and family balance, and doing this right will benefit inclusion as well.” This will open up a greater representation going forward.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Samantha Saperstein, head of Women on the Move, JPMorgan Chase & Co., who said her company is evaluating return-to-work options to ensure employees can maintain flexibility while preserving equity. “We need to make sure our work arrangements are fair to everyone,” she said. “For those folks staying at home, how are they interacting with their managers and teams? We need to make sure if they’re not able to come back to the office, they’re still being treated fairly.”
Saperstein said we must go beyond what the numbers might be saying to understand the true story: “We looked at attrition to see how women were faring, and although we didn’t see unusually higher rates, it masked that working mothers were experiencing unbelievable stress and strain…and are still dealing with a lot of burdens at home.”
To understand what more companies can be doing around flexibility and childcare issues, she suggested asking employees direct questions: How is your work being structured? Are you able to handle that? How are you interacting with your peers? For those less forthcoming, anonymous tools such as employee opinion surveys and questionnaires ahead of all-hands calls can be insightful.
She added a somber fact: “Externally, we’re seeing a drain of women in the labor force. These numbers are really big and scary—2 million fewer women in the labor force, and many of them are from sectors that may not come back for a while. What happened to the gains that we made over many years? How far back did we fall? How can we collectively get more women back in, whether they lost their jobs or had to step out because of their responsibilities?”
Kimberly Lawrence, head of U.S., Visa, said women are worried about the impact these job losses are going to have on their careers. However, she remains optimistic. “When we look back to the recovery following the 2008 recession, it was female entrepreneurs who contributed significantly to the recovery, more so than their male counterparts,” she said. “Our hope, and expectation, is that COVID will present very similar circumstances.”
Lawrence said Visa is creating a community where employees can lean on one another, whether it’s because they have young children learning at home or a personal task they need to do during the work day. To that end, Visa has implemented Wellness Fridays throughout 2021, meaning no meetings are scheduled for those afternoons so employees can use the time to catch up on work—or life.
Deconstructing systemic barriers
Recognizing there are underlying systemic barriers that have held groups back for far too long, Ucuzoglu said companies need to hear employees’ lived experiences and create the environment in which it’s safe to have these discussions. “If you want to have a leading organization, you have to allow people to have the conversation,” he said. “Fundamental changes have to be driven through corporate America. It’s not about putting out a few headlines to do your part. Do the root-cause work. What are the underlying challenges holding people back?”
Leadership is about listening, having humility and being empathetic. These qualities have been evolving over the last decade, but are now being more prominently displayed—a corporate silver lining of the pandemic.
“There is the illusion that all of us are in the same boat … we’re all in the same storm, but very different boats,” said Judith Williams, head of people sustainability and SVP, chief diversity & inclusion officer, SAP. “Disparity impacts are based on geography, ethnicity, gender. People of color are more likely to get ill and pass away from COVID. Women are more often caregivers, with bigger and bigger responsibilities, not only for children, but for older relatives.”
Williams suggested creating early talent advisory boards as a channel for employees to share their experiences across generations. She said leaders need to start by listening, and to be transparent about how decisions are made. “If leaders don’t model inclusive behavior, then employees aren’t going to listen to what they say. They need to communicate about the value of inclusion and have a feedback culture where people feel comfortable speaking up.”
Younger employees, in particular, hold older executives accountable and are not interested in business as usual. Said Williams, “If your company says you make the world run better, employees are going to make sure you do.”
The growth mindset
The No. 1 skillset now, according to Ucuzoglu, is a growth mindset—“the ability to listen, to explore new ways of doing things, to synthesize a large volume of different data points and make sense of a complex world. Those who don’t want to take feedback and grow, that’s a disqualifier.”
Said Williams, “You need a team of rivals, strong people who complement you, to be successful. … Often we create ... more of ourselves, and that is a mistake. We need to ask, ‘What is it we don’t have? What is the culture contribution instead of the culture fit?’”
Another way is to be honest about the things you know and the things you need to learn. Ask yourself what you can contribute to the culture of the organization, and to the world.
With automation and offshoring more likely to affect the future job prospects of women and minorities, for example, Saperstein said that reskilling efforts are already underway at JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company is providing on-demand learning and educational partnerships and using AI to offer more courses to employees.
Ucuzoglu summed up today’s opportunities: “I wish it wasn’t a pandemic that served as the accelerant to get some of this cool stuff done, but as the old saying goes, ‘Let no crisis go to waste.’ We won’t. There’s a lot of positive that’s going to come out of this.”