By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley
Over the past few decades, gender equity in the workplace has come a long way. The pay gap has narrowed (albeit not closed all the way), there are more women in leadership roles, and there is broader female representation in male-dominated industries. However, the pandemic has shown us that we still have a long way to go.
A recent national survey found that one-third of working mothers in Canada have thought about quitting their job during the pandemic, and another noted that mothers were more than twice as likely as fathers to worry about their performance being judged negatively because of caregiving responsibilities.
For those women who choose (or are forced) to leave their jobs for a time, returning to the workplace can be a daunting task, both mentally and logistically. As employers, we must maintain our focus on gender parity and provide support to those going through this challenging transition.
A new resource for employers
If you're unsure what support should look like, the Mental Health Commission of Canada's (MHCC's) newly released tips for employers to support women returning to work is a great place to start.
This resource highlights the value of balancing practical solutions with emotional support, and the importance of flexibility, kindness and empathy. Without compassion and understanding, accommodations won't suffice, and vice versa.
To help foster a more welcoming environment for women returning to the workforce, consider the following suggestions:
- Communicate expectations. Even before the employee returns, communication can go a long way toward easing the transition for both parties. Share any changes that have occurred during her absence and give her enough info that she knows what to expect when she returns. Likewise, be sure to listen to any concerns she may have and provide answers to questions or let her know you will find the answers if you don't have them.
- Offer increased flexibility (where possible). Discuss how this will work specific to the individual. Remember that flexibility might look different at the beginning of the transition than it will down the road. Check in regularly to ensure the arrangement is working for everyone affected.
- Redistribute workload, even if only temporarily. Sometimes, equity is more important than equality. When someone is returning to work, particularly after a prolonged absence, resuming work pace and volume can take time. You may need to redistribute work temporarily so that no one is given more than they can handle.
- Be patient and empathetic. No matter the reason for the leave, delving back into the workforce is a significant adjustment that won't happen overnight. Be patient and remember that the employee may have a harder time with the change than she is comfortable sharing. The more empathy shown, the better the outcome is likely to be for everyone.
- Provide resources. Make sure the employee knows she is not alone, and that support is available. Encourage her to use company benefits or employee assistance programs as needed.
Hiring with inclusivity
Between February and March, women accounted for 62 per cent of the jobs lost, with many jobs in female-dominated industries like services and hospitality being the first to disappear. Some may be moving on to completely different jobs that will require new skills. Others, who were out of the workforce before the pandemic may have gaps on their resumes. In either case, there is a good chance these perceived inadequacies will deter them from applying for positions even if they are qualified.
To avoid excluding excellent female candidates, consider the following tips for the hiring process:
- Don't paint resume gaps as a negative. Instead, use them as an opportunity to find out what unique skills the woman may have developed during her time away - running a household, caring for a sick relative, or navigating the healthcare system translate into practical skills, like decision-making, compassion, and attention to detail.
- Refrain from making assumptions based on age. Women over 40, especially those returning from a prolonged absence, are sometimes discounted because of a perception that they lack technical skills or are otherwise out of touch with the working world. In reality, they are often highly motivated with valuable experience to share.
- Be transparent about flexibility. A woman may fear applying for a job she is qualified for if she feels that an organization won't accommodate her other responsibilities. If there is flexibility with things like remote work or starting hours, be open about it from the beginning.
- Offer on-the-job training. Research suggests that women are less likely than men to apply for jobs if they don't meet every qualification. Be open about required qualifications and those that can be learned on the job if the candidate is the right fit.
Supporting employee well-being benefits everyone
While responsibility for employee mental health does not fall solely on the employer, creating a supportive workplace culture contributes to better productivity, morale, and efficiency. Conversely, an unsupportive environment may lead to higher absenteeism, conflict, and even disability claims.
Whether a woman is returning from work following a pandemic-related cut, parental leave, or any other reason, a supportive employer can make her transition a much more positive experience. By cultivating a workplace with inclusivity and understanding at its core, women will be more likely to thrive and meet their full potential.