‘What will our priorities be when we take the mask off?’ Female leaders on what they’re doing to support employees now

October 12, 2021, 12:54 AM UTC

Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano made history when she became the first deaf woman president of Gallaudet University back in 2016. Gallaudet, an educational institution for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, at the time had a majority male executive team, and only two of those individuals could sign fluently in American Sign Language, according to Cordano.

But when she assumed her new role, she didn’t accept that alone as sufficient progress for the school. In the years since, she’s worked to make the executive team more representative of the university at large. The team is now composed of mostly deaf individuals, most of whom are female, and over 30% of whom identify as BIPOC.

Cordano’s influence on Gallaudet’s culture so far, as she sees it, is that there is a “much higher demand for relationships” than before, she shared during a panel discussion at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit Monday in Washington, D.C., just a few miles from Gallaudet’s campus. 

To illustrate how important she views relationships to be, she recounted the story of her work with an executive coach. Cordano said this coach was the first person she’d ever worked with who would stop speaking long enough for Cordano to look down from the interpreter and take notes. One day, the coach remarked that despite these pauses they would take, she covered just as much ground with Cordano in their sessions—more in fact—than with her other students who didn’t require these pauses.

“As females, as leaders, it’s all about being in a relationship, and that requires us, at times, to slow down,” Cordano said of her leadership philosophy. “And that slowing down often leads to collective success.”

As a leader, at times slowing down might take the form of creating opportunities for employees to express their unique challenges, then helping them find solutions. Employee resource groups (ERGs) are one key way of fostering discussions around issues that matter to the people at all levels of an organization. For example, a couple of years ago, pre-pandemic, employees at Chipotle Mexican Grill formed a group called Hustle, which stands for Humans United Support the Ladies’ Experience, said Marissa Andrada, Chipotle’s chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer. 

“We’re really thankful that that group came together, because they actually informed a lot of the benefits that we were resetting back in 2019,” Andrada said, adding that the company reassessed parental leave for mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents based on Hustle’s recommendations. Then, when lockdowns led to a bit of a baby boom, the group formed a “Returnity” program, a support network of new moms returning to work amid the pandemic. At Chipotle, Andrada noted, women represent 50% of the workforce, and the largest demographic is Latinx women.

At Workday, ERGs are known as Employee Belonging Councils, and the company has 145 of them, said chief diversity officer Carin Taylor. From caregivers, to single parents, to those whose partners lost their jobs during the pandemic, everyone has the opportunity to share their experience. 

“All things are not created equally,” Taylor said. “If you’re dealing with a single parent with multiple kids, versus maybe someone who is married, and you have two-family income, the issues are very different.” Providing support to different employees with different needs might come in the form of offering flexible schedules, Taylor said. For example, a caregiver might find it easier to work from the office some mornings, then from home some afternoons—or vice versa.

The murder of George Floyd was another major 2020 event that has spurred conversations within workplaces. Michelle Gethers-Clark organized some of these discussions, formerly as president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro, N.C.

“I went to my board. I said, ‘I cannot be silent,’” Gethers-Clark recalled. “So we had community conversations. One day at lunchtime Friday, we said, ‘We’re gonna have a community conversation on Monday. Five hundred people showed up. Because people wanted to be on the right side of history, but didn’t know what it looked like.”

Those community conversations led to a community fund, bolstered by a $10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott. Not long after, Gethers-Clark, who had a background in the financial services industry, got a call from Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly Jr. He offered her the job of chief diversity officer and head of corporate responsibility, and she assumed the role in May. She said she took the job because she admired Visa’s core value of “uplifting” those who need help accessing resources to build success. 

Still she stressed that it’s important, when trying to uplift others and address the societal problems the pandemic has shone a light on, to interrogate motives: “Is it about women’s rights? Is it about childcare? Education? Or is it about economics? Unfortunately capitalism is sometimes overshadowing the human condition,” Gether-Clark said. “We will live with COVID. We will never be a post-COVID world. What are our priorities going to be when we take the mask off?”

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