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How to fix the COVID-damaged pipeline for women in leadership

March 8, 2021, 5:30 AM UTC
New research from the IBM Institute for Business Value shows that women in the corporate leadership ranks have been hit hard by the pandemic.
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The numbers stop you cold, an unforgiving stream of data detailing a pandemic that cleaved millions upon millions of women from the global labor force. 

In the United States alone, a National Women’s Law Center analysis found that at least 5 million women have lost their jobs since the onset of COVID-19, putting female participation at its lowest rate since 1988. Already enormous in scale, the losses continue to add up. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported some 275,000 women left the country’s labor market in January, compared with just 71,000 men. Just last month, Vice President Kamala Harris called this troubling trend a “national emergency.”

This is no longer just a discussion of a pandemic that has changed how people work or where they work. This is fundamentally about who is still working.

The tough truth is that it didn’t have to be this way. If workplaces had more earnestly embraced strategies to address gender inequity, the women who disproportionately lost their jobs might still be working. We know solutions exist, so now is the time to embrace pragmatic strategies geared at giving women clear runways back to work and preventing this from happening again. Failure to do so risks imperiling a speedy economic recovery, as well as backtracking gains made in progress toward gender equity over the years.

Broadly speaking, it’s the men and women in leadership ranks who can initiate the most significant organizational changes. But even women at that level have been hit hard by the pandemic. New research from the IBM Institute for Business Value shows that fewer women today hold high-level executive and managerial roles than at the end of 2019. During that same period, the pipeline of women in senior manager and senior vice president roles both shrank by five percentage points, from 25% and 18%, respectively, in 2019, to 20% and 13% today. 

Despite a growing body of evidence showing that businesses are more likely to see higher rates of revenue growth when they place greater value on gender equity, 70% of organizations do not make it a top priority, according to IBM’s research. And while many companies have started well-intentioned programs to address the gender gap, today’s reality shows they are not delivering. This dilemma exacerbates undercurrents of fatigue and waning optimism about the seriousness of corporate efforts.

Businesses have the ability to reverse this trajectory today and begin carving a path out of this global crisis. At the top of the list is implementing ways for women to return to work now. This means supporting them with access to training, tools, and technology, as well as giving them work assignments on technical projects that match their expertise. That last point is especially noteworthy. In my own experience, it is when women are empowered with the tough roles—the big and thorny turnaround jobs—that our next generation of leaders emerges.

And we will start seeing more of that when businesses reimagine advocacy, which necessarily involves prioritizing sponsorships over mentorships. It is important to acknowledge the differences between the two. Mentors talk to you, sponsors talk about you. The data around sponsorships is compelling. U.S. women with a sponsor earn more than their counterparts without one, according to research from PayScale, a compensation data and software company that advises employers. Even more interesting is the power of male allyship in this regard. Female protégés with a male sponsor earn 14.6% more than women with a female sponsor. 

Also important is how we use technology as a tool to nurture more diverse and equal workplaces. Consider the use of artificial intelligence for gender-blind application screening, just one innovative solution to help us avoid a minefield of unconscious biases in hiring.

Finally, to truly bring women back into the labor force companies must also reimagine systems to keep them there. When the pandemic strained the global economy, the burden of familial and eldercare responsibilities largely fell to women. Data show that, of those who lost their jobs, women ages 25 to 44 were nearly three times as likely as men to be out of work because of childcare demands. Clear-eyed solutions involve embracing greater flexibility around how, when, and where people work.

Recovery from the pandemic will not happen overnight, and neither will true gender equity in the labor market. The last year was especially painful, but it also presents an opportunity to course-correct ways that deliver exponential impact. In taking on this challenge, we will carve a brighter path for women, for men, and for our global economy.

Bridget van Kralingen is the senior vice president of IBM Global Markets and the senior executive sponsor of the IBM Women’s Community.