TitleThe Five Ways Business Leaders Can Help Stop the Covid-19 “She-Cession”


reacHIRE recently brought together “culture creators” from leading companies to share how their organizations are driving diversity, equity and inclusion for women during the Covid-19 she-cession. As professional women leave the workforce at unprecedented rates in order to take care of their families, the long-term impact on gender equality in the workforce is dire. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eighty percent of the nearly 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force in September were women. That’s 865,000 women, compared to 216,000 men. 

Hosted by the Museum of Science as part of its Women and Girls in STEM initiative and supported by BNY Mellon and the Women In Science & Engineering (WISE) Committee, the discussion revealed best practices and key insights for business leaders committed to putting women on a new pandemic-era path to career and financial security.

Direct from the Women in the Workplace analysts at McKinsey & Company and frontline change agents at Dell Technologies, PHDouglas & Associates and Wayfair who are challenging the status-quo and taking action, here are the top five ways business leaders can better retain, engage and promote women at all stages of the talent pipeline to drive progress during Covid-19 and the critical years that follow:

1. Don’t Unsee What You Are Seeing

Perhaps one of the few silver linings of Covid is that diversity and inclusion are becoming more tangible and accelerated. Priscilla Douglas, president of PHDouglas and Associates, said that Covid has “forever changed us and we are not the same people as we were before 2020.”

Challenging a July 2020 New York Times article by Harvard Professor N. Gregory Mankiw titled CEOs Are Qualified to Make Profits, Not Lead Society, Douglas argued that it is up to CEOs and all business leaders to put people before profits and place themselves in the room where meaningful change will happen.

Jodie McLean, CEO of EDENS, one of the nation’s leading private owners, operators and developers of retail real estate, agrees. She credits empathy among her greatest strengths as CEO that has helped her employees prosper during difficult times. In a recent Forbes interview, McLean said, “ I am leading first and foremost with understanding the consumer and humanity rather than through the lens of finance or economics.”

2. Pressure Test Subjective Words

KeyAnna Schmiedl, the Global Head of Culture & Inclusion at Wayfair shared how the online retailer takes a hard look at words like “confidence” and the staggering way it can differ by gender in performance reviews. By “pressure testing” subjective words and increasing awareness of their impact, Wayfair is able to improve diversity, equity and inclusion for women at their organization.

The company also launched a “Change Starts at Home” program for employees to directly ask leaders how they are thinking about culture and business. Encouraging honest discussions between employees and leaders helps “prevent monolithic programs that don’t work for people,” she said. Schmiedl suggests leaders approach employees and ERGs with a blank slate and simply ask, “What do you need?”

3. Expand Your Diversity Aperture

Dell Technologies is taking a three-pronged approach to diversity and inclusion that includes goals, culture and practices. Kristi Hummel, senior vice president, Talent & Culture, shared how Dell is embracing a culture of flexibility to help women and parents shoulder the new burdens placed upon them by Covid-19 through tangible actions like subsidizing nanny services and tutoring for school-age children.

Hummel advises that business leaders be very explicit about what inclusion looks like for their company and measure everything. When it comes to diversity, she said you need to “expand the aperture through which you see your workforce in order to get it right.”

4. Protect and Promote Early-Career Women

Sarah MacConduibh, a Senior Adjunct at the RAND Corporation and former vice president of MITRE Corporation’s National Security Engineering Center (NSEC), is guiding and supporting early-career women as an Aurora Guide through reacHIRE. During the pandemic, she has worked with cohorts of early-career professionals and sees six common areas where millennial and GenZ women are struggling most today: isolation, lack of childcare, not feeling heard, networking, work/life balance and  the need to prioritize self-development and self-care.

“Women are hungry for whatever their employers can give them in providing extra support,” MacConduibh said, noting that tremendous change is possible in short periods of time when you focus on the things that matter most. “In just six months working on six things with small groups of women, I’ve seen tremendous gains that are noticed by the women, their peers, and most importantly, their managers.”

5. Build Bridges for Women Who Want to Come Back

Women are leaving the workforce at unprecedented rates due to Covid and they will need a pathway back. Een Tan, Senior Manager, Strategy Services at Fidelity Investments and Rachel Higgins, Senior Account Manager, Life Sciences at Lionbridge, shared what it was like to step out of the workforce and feel like everything had changed when it was time to return, even though they knew they had both the skills and the aptitude to contribute.

Tan and Higgins urge companies to create hiring and training programs specifically for returners like those in place at Fidelity, Lionbridge, T-Mobile and Wayfair that bring cohorts of women back at the same time to achieve gender diversity at a greater pace and scale. By committing to bringing back groups of women in an intentional way (rather than one at a time), companies will dramatically increase the numbers of women represented in their ranks, and speed up the nation’s recovery from Covid’s gender equality devastation.