reacHIRE CEO Addie Swartz was recently honored at the Concord Museum in Massachusetts as part of a special exhibition, Every Path Laid Open: Women of Concord & the Quest for Equality. A longtime Concord resident, attendee of the museum, and admirer of important Concordians – especially Little Women author Louisa May Alcott – Addie led a presentation exploring the future of women’s careers. The following is excerpted from her presentation.
Paving the Way
The road to progress was paved by the women who came before us.
Take Louisa May Alcott. Many of us are familiar with her best-selling works, but not everyone knows that the commercial success of her books rescued her family from poverty in 1863. Louisa was a successful working woman, truly modern for the times.
Look at the Women Suffragettes. It took a herculean amount of perseverance, demonstration and rallying together to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920 — finally giving women, who represented 50% of the population, the right to vote.
Fast forward to 1970 when The Mary Tyler Moore show debuted. Mary Richards was a symbol of what a single woman with a career looked like, providing a new and important role model for young women. What is most surprising is that it was four years into the show’s run when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, enabling women to open bank accounts on their own for the first time. Clearly the show was ahead of its time.
Twenty years later, when reacHIRE CEO Addie Swartz started her first company in Boston, she was one of only a handful of female CEOs. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of female entrepreneurs in Boston. And in 2009, women hit another major milestone: Ursula Burns became CEO of Xerox, the first African American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 Company. And here we are now in 2021, and Whitney Wolfe Herd, the CEO of Bumble, has just become not only the youngest woman to take a company public, but the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. Through grit and persistence, working women have made great strides over the years.
But then the pandemic hit. Progress was halted and most of the gains shrunk or were reversed.
The pandemic pushed nearly 3 million women out of the workforce, reducing women’s labor force participation to 57%, the lowest since 19881. It’s estimated that the pandemic set women back 33 years. More than 25% of the women who became unemployed during the pandemic said it was due to a lack of childcare1. And not surprisingly, the pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health — 59% of women felt that remote work negatively affected their well-being2.
As we emerge from the pandemic and return to new work environments — blends of in-person, hybrid, and remote teams, what can we do to make changes that support and keep women in the workplace?
Companies can create change, by building pillars that support women’s success.
Pillar #1: Seamless Career Onramps and Offramps
Having a family creates a common offramp for women, but the research shows that other factors play a significant role in the decision to leave the workforce, including professional status, opportunities for advancement, personal health, or care for aging relatives.
More visible and concrete ways for women to offramp and onramp without penalty would enable more women to return to meaningful work. The fact is that few women who leave the workforce return in a significant way. And of the ones that do, only a fraction find full-time jobs. Companies that evaluate returning women for their potential and transferable skills, not just how they fit specific job requirements, will attract exceptional talent sitting on the sidelines who are seeking a path back to work.
Pillar #2: Pay Equity
The national pay gap is 18.5 cents on the dollar, and in the Boston area it’s 30 cents on the dollar3. If women and men were paid the same for doing the same jobs, perhaps the choice to take a career break would be more evenly divided between men and women.
The truth is, the pay gap has forced millions of women out of the workforce due to child care responsibilities since the decision of who leaves the workforce is often based on economics.
Pillar #3: Access to Affordable — and Accessible — Childcare
Childcare has to become more affordable and accessible for all, so that it is no longer an economic decision for a woman to stay at home, but a personal one. The government has proposed the American Family Plan, but corporations need to recognize childcare is a business issue. Data shows that the United States’ gross domestic product could be 5% higher if women participated in the workforce at the same rate as men4. Making childcare affordable powers not only our businesses, but our economy too.
Pillar #4: Flexible Work Options
The best companies meet women where they are in their lives and career, no matter what age or stage. They will offer part time, reduced hours, a flexible 40 hours — without the loss or penalty of career growth. Creating tracks for individual contributors, rethinking travel requirements, and relaxing in-person face-time requirements all play a part in attracting great talent and keeping them engaged and growing with a company. Career paths are really horizontal — more like a bridge vs. a ladder — and companies should reward potential and productivity, not rely on outdated performance standards that value success only as an upward trajectory.
Pillar #5: Different Supports for Women
Most of the working world is still male-dominated and the policies and board rooms reflect the ongoing imbalance. In many companies, women are still in the minority as you look up through the organization at different levels. Women hold a much smaller number of leadership roles, even at the first rung of the corporate ladder, at manager level. Today, about 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman — and only 1 in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color2.
An often overlooked way to bring more women into leadership is to create environments where women can build a community of peers to better navigate through and around challenges. So they can work through both their challenges and the opportunities that are before them.
In all our work with different companies and different cultures, we know that women benefit greatly from learning from seasoned leaders, receiving specialized advice and support, and forming trusted peer connections to survive and thrive — to grow their skills and help them navigate.
The great news is that we have so many female role models today that are helping pave the way to help us forge ahead. Whether it be women making inroads in local and national government, sports, climate change, art, biotech, or film, we need to thank the women who came before us — who have had the courage to blaze a trail.
Hybrid work is here to stay and with it comes new opportunities and challenges. New ways of thinking about hiring, working, and careers paths. New tools and new technologies to be embraced.
So this is a rallying cry — so much of what was accomplished by the women of Concord back in the 18 and early 1900’s — and in the decades since, has instigated change. Let’s continue to push forward and help more women today become the leaders of tomorrow.
May the Revolution continue.
- Harvard Business Review, April 2021
- McKinsey, June 2020
- Boston Women’s Workforce Council 2019 Report
- The history of women’s work and wages and how it has created success for us all, Janet L. Yellen, May 2020