The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an uncomfortable truth about the life of a working woman in America. Women still earn less than men at work, are less likely to advance to management positions, and shoulder a larger share of household work at the same time. The pandemic didn’t create gender inequality at home and work — it exacerbated problems that already existed. It’s no wonder one-in-four women now say they are considering dropping out of the workforce altogether.
Often conversations around working women’s pay inequality and professional advancement focus on what women themselves can do to better navigate the labor market to give themselves the best shot at success. But as long as the labor force is male dominated, we won’t be able to truly make improvements in how working women feel supported without allyship from men as well.
Here are ways — big and small — you can help support equality for women at work and at home.
How managers and corporations can be a better ally for working women
Don’t just tell workers they can be flexible with their work hours — model it yourself. When flexible work schedules are modeled by managers, it gives all of their direct reports permission to follow suit. It also helps the social tax working moms might face when they need to ask for flexibility, which might be viewed unfavorably by colleagues. Also, when managers allow flexibility for working dads as well as moms, they are giving working dads a chance to chip in at home when their partners need help.
Be aware of unconscious bias that can pop up in office chatter. Don’t let offhand remarks that are tinged with bias against working moms fly in the office. For example, if a working mom sometimes has to shift around meeting times to accommodate her child’s erratic Zoom school schedule and a colleague uses that as an excuse not to include her on an important project planning call, that’s an opportunity for a manager to step in and let that colleague know that it’s not alright to show bias against a working mother.
Offer childcare subsidies and/or family caregiver leave. For managers in decision-making positions around company-wide benefits, consider expanding benefits for workers needing additional funds for childcare services or for workers who might need to serve as caregivers for relatives. Women are often the de facto caregiver in their families, so these benefits could have a large impact on their abilities to juggle both work and home responsibilities.
Sponsor a woman in your field. Representation of women and minorities in the upper ranks of management leaves much to be desired in many fields. And as long as men hold most positions of authority in workplaces, it’s going to be difficult to make meaningful opportunities for professional advancement without their commitment. If you are in a leadership role, consider sponsoring a woman in your field and helping to develop professional opportunities for her through guidance, introductions to influential people and advocacy.
Establish some webcam-free days once in a while. Not every worker has access to a clean, quiet office for remote working. Plenty of working parents are hunched over kitchen tables or hauling their laptop from room to room while keeping one eye on kids doing virtual school. Give workers a break from the mental labor of having to think about their appearance and their surroundings on work calls that don’t necessarily require video.
Regularly review compensation for gender-wage disparities. No matter how many helpful articles a woman reads about negotiating pay, it’s not fair to expect women to hold sole responsibility for earning a fair salary or wage. It’s the people at corporations who have decision-making power on compensation that can prevent and address gender pay disparities. If you think there are differences in treatment between genders— such as special projects or pay differences for similar roles and skills— raise concerns to HR. Advocate for people on your team without expecting someone else to do it for you.
Support women and working mom employee resource groups. Giving employees a space where they can gather and lean on one another for support can help keep loneliness at bay. It can be as simple as establishing a #workingparents Slack channel and opening it up to all parents to casually drop in and check in on one another. This can help a working mom who, for example, may be the only one on her team with children and might not feel understood by her colleagues.
How Coworkers Can Be a Better Ally for Women at Work
Offer a helping hand. Be observant of additional pressures women on your team might be facing at home during the pandemic. Offer to lend a helping hand to meet a deadline or to take notes for them at a meeting that they might not be able to attend. Even if the offer is declined, if your intentions are sincere, chances are high your colleague will appreciate it all the same.
Ask how your coworkers are doing. Even those fortunate enough to be able still work during the pandemic have struggles, large and small. You never know what someone on your team might be going through, so even small gestures like sending a quick IM to ask how they are doing can show that you support them and see them.
Don’t throw meetings on calendars. Check in with women on your team before throwing meetings casually on to their calendars. They may have certain times blocked out for childcare duties or short breaks from their computers. And be mindful of meeting times, especially early in the morning.
How Spouses Can Be a Better Ally for Women at Home and Work
Share in the cognitive/emotional labor of being a working parent. Women are often tasked with handling the family schedules, planning meals, helping resolve conflicts between kids, and anticipating family needs. Even if she looks like she has it all handled, chances are she’d love an offer to help. Consider setting time aside for a few minutes at the beginning of each day to ask if there’s anything you can help with.
Ask for flexibility at work yourself (if it’s possible). When men and women both ask for flexibility at work, especially if they do so to help chip in with childcare or provide relief for their spouse, it can help colleagues and managers break stereotypes they may have about gender roles.
Show her that you value her career. By supporting women at home so that they can show up to work and excel, you’re indirectly showing them how much you value their professional development. Ask her how her schedule looks for the day and pay attention to specific meetings or deadlines she seems anxious about. Offer to cover the childcare and household duties for certain periods of time to give her space and peace to complete those high-stakes tasks.
Learn more about the challenges and opportunities that women face when it comes to their finances.