Now is the perfect time to invest in gender equality

Five accomplished women friends sat six feet apart last weekend in a backyard. The discussion quickly turned to the urgent issue of our day: the lack of summer camp options, with school ending in less than three days. Our kids are now home with nothing to do, while we try to work. We shared our guilt about the hours of video games and Tik-Toks about to be consumed. We discussed the likelihood that large packs of non-socially distanced kids will pop up in town centers, wreaking Lord-knows-what-kind-of-havoc. While a small sliver of hope emerged that this “no plans” summer will drive creativity and self-motivation, the general consensus? It’s a gender equality nightmare.

The only thing worse than no summer camp is the looming fear that there won’t be in-person school in the fall. The fear is not unfounded. Recent guidance issued in Massachusetts is capping attendance at 10 kids per class. How do you possibly pull off “in person” school in large, already overcrowded middle or high schools, where most classes have nearly 30 kids? 

If you are a leader, you know this pandemic has put an incredible strain on everyone, but particularly parents. What’s changing now is that people are expected to go back to the office or factory. Restaurants are reopening. Clinics are taking patients. Daycares for the youngest ones are gearing back up. As a result, work is expected to be “getting back to normal.” But for parents of school-aged kids, very little has changed. And it might not for months and months to come. 

As a result, every company is facing a growing gender equality issue that will most likely manifest across income and gender. The wealthiest families will solve this no camp/remote or part-time school problem by hiring someone to watch over the kids, even those who might normally be too old for a sitter. Think “Alice” from the Brady Bunch who understands Zoom. But for many families—especially those impacted by the loss of hours, tips, and overtime wages—the cost of professional full-time care is out of reach.

Millions of parents will therefore be trying to juggle doing their work and doing what’s necessary to ensure kids are safe, fed, and learning on the homefront. Who is most likely to be managing all of this juggling? The data suggests during the pandemic that burden fell primarily on moms. The imbalance isn’t likely to change as the pandemic’s impact extends over the summer and into the fall. And that’s where the gender equality crisis for companies kicks in even harder.

Without significant support soon, more women will likely move to part-time work or leave jobs altogether to care for kids. Women will stay remote when everyone else goes back to the office and face more isolation and exclusion. Women may also pull themselves off of career progression paths because it’s just impossible to fight for that promotion and juggle three kids’ various Zoom classes or alternative days.

So, what can companies do to ensure their incredible female talent pool doesn’t leave or get stopped in their tracks?

First, seek to understand what parents are facing, now and in the fall. The lockdowns of April and May were universal and everyone at all levels generally faced the same challenges. Now, it’s a patchwork that varies by country, by state, by camp, by school district, and thus, by family. Encourage managers to know what each family is facing. Consider having your D&I team focus specifically on parent support for the next 6 months, including surveys that assess levels of “care stress.”

Second, maintain a “remote friendly” and flexible hours culture, ideally forever. If any benefit has come from this pandemic, my hope is that it’s the investment in tools and a corresponding change in mindset about remote work and flexible schedules. Resist the temptation to get everyone back together as soon as possible. Encourage leaders to continue to work at least half-time remotely or more until the school/care issues are resolved to send a message that remote work is valued and supported. Let people set their hours to accommodate when their care needs are highest and lowest.

Third, consider some extraordinary, even if temporary, steps to support your parents. Set up places for the kids to do school from the office if parents need to bring them with them. Expand the age ranges of your day care centers and offer daily rates and options. Help facilitate “care-shares” between employees. 

Finally, I will never forget when my company promoted me into a new role right before I went on maternity leave. It sent a huge signal to many women employees. Companies should work even harder now to identify, support and promote their “high potential” parents, particularly moms, and make sure that they keep them on that career track. If they’ve managed to shine over these past several months, they are undoubtedly a super star.

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