The pandemic has been changing the face of Canada’s workforce and the news at first seems grim. After 30 years of progress to close the gender gap in the workplace, the number of women participating in the labour force is at its lowest. In the U.S., the landscape isn’t much different. One in three mothers may be forced to scale back work or opt out altogether.
And that’s a problem for both countries. No only does the economy need working women, but successful companies do too. Organizations with women at senior levels are 50 per cent more likely to outperform their peers. A McKinsey report noted that women leaders are also more likely to champion gender and racial diversity at work, so when they leave women at all levels lose powerful allies.
The women that are most vulnerable in their roles are young women who have paused their trajectory into leadership because they’re caring for family members, said Samantha Estoesta Williams, outreach operations manager and equity and inclusion advocate at TD Lab in Kitchener, and a public speaker who talks about diversity, inclusion, and equity in STEM.
“It’s not that dads are not doing that, but it’s overwhelmingly women taking on that work,” said Estoesta Williams.
While the number of women in the tech industry has risen dramatically over the last five years, there’s a lot that tech organizations can do to mitigate the loss of women in the workplace from the pandemic, said Dinah Davis, vice president of research and development at Arctic Wolf, a cybersecurity company with an office in Waterloo.
“How flexible employers are will make all the difference here,” said Davis, an advocate for women in tech who also founded Code Like a Girl in 2015.
Some tech organizations are responding, offering flexible hours, unlimited vacation, and restrictions around when co-workers can schedule virtual meetings. While some of those responses came before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown, at least one organization said their culture helped ease the transition for their workforce.
At Zeitspace, flexibility has always been embedded into our work. The team always had the flexibility to leave early for appointments and have flexible start times. That mindset has transitioned well as the team works from home during the pandemic. Zeitspace partners Mark Connolly and Jeff Fedor also eased employee anxiety by openly talking about the company’s health and future outlook. And, as always, they also remind people on the team to take breaks and keep a work-life balance so they don’t burn out.
Along with a look at what we’re doing here at Zeitspace, we talked to three other organizations about their response to retaining women workers, what’s working about it, and what the future of work could look like for their organizations. What can other organizations learn from their responses?
The responses highlight two themes that may endure past the pandemic: The need for employers to be flexible and caring about employee health, both mental and physical. Each response focuses on individual needs, rather than a one size fits all solution, approaching the issues of keeping women tech workers in the workplace through an intersectional lens that considers individual struggles over sweeping stereotypes about how women are handling working from home during a pandemic.
Estoesta Williams had just returned from parental leave, when six weeks later the pandemic shut down office work. She and her spouse juggled work and parenting duties for their toddler by switching between both every two hours from 7 a.m. to bedtime.
“There’s an exhaustion you don’t know until you have to switch from work to childcare, work to childcare,” she said. “A toddler requires 24/7 attention. We had to make a really difficult decision over what caring for our child and our sanity would look like.”
Her spouse stopped working at the end of May to focus on childcare.
“That is unheard of,” said Estoesta Williams.
Friends were flabbergasted that they prioritized her career over his.
But her husband is a bit older than she is and so had longer time in the workforce. And he also hadn’t just returned from parental leave.
“Once you transition out of the field, that drop out rate (for women) is huge,” she said.
Estoesta Williams said part of the transition to working from home was eased because of TD’s response to working during the pandemic.
Leadership from the beginning outlined a four-hour block of time where employees could schedule meetings. If you needed to only clock in for those meetings you could do that, she said. When someone scheduled a meeting outside of those hours, a vice president asked to change the time so that it was inside the four-hour block.
“These are things that seem very little and common sense but as an employee it means you don’t have to worry about it,” said Estoesta Williams.
TD leaders have also normalized the idea of children and dependents being seen and heard in the background in meetings, added Estoesta Williams. That has led to an important shift seeing employees as whole people, and focusing on both an employee’s physical and mental health.
Because of that TD Lab hasn’t seen the exodus of employees that other organizations may face.
But Estoesta Williams also cautioned that the data in some of the reports about women leaving the workforce may not be telling the whole story. While gender is the easiest common denominator, she said, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are facing other social and cultural issues that make it hard not to burn out.
“Is it just childcare? Is it racism? Something else? If we actually ignore some of the core reasons why tech has historically been a place that doesn’t represent the population that we have, it would do us a disservice,” she said.
“When you look at creating equity in the workforce and the drastic decline of women in the field because of COVID, it should be done with an intersectional lens because there’s different reasons why people are leaving the field. Some of them are simple and some of them are complex.”
At Arctic Wolf, the office is a resource. The company allows up to 20 people (of its team of 200 in Waterloo Region) in the office at once as long as they follow public health guidelines, such as keeping physical distance and wearing masks.
“The key for us is not everybody is happy at home. Some people have twins in their house and need to escape to the office to get some work done. If that works for them, then great, but it’s all about flexibility. Can somebody not work during noon to 3 p.m., but work in the other hours? If yes, then you’re not going to lose as many people,” said Davis.
Before the pandemic, Arctic Wolf was not a work-from-home company. Instead, employees worked from home when they needed to, but mostly worked from the office. But once offices reopen to all employees, Arctic Wolf plans to give their employees options: work from home full time, work from the office full time, and something that’s in between, said Davis. And employees who opt to permanently work from home will get a small stipend to make their home office the same quality as Arctic Wolf’s regular office.
While some companies are going fully remote, that doesn’t work for everyone, said Davis.
“There are some job roles that are better done in the office. I am spending eight, nine hours every day on Zoom. I just spend my whole day on Zoom, meeting after meeting after meeting. In the office, I can go talk to people. Definitely when things ease up I will be a work from the office person,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, Arctic Wolf added channels to their team Slack, creating an informal work environment. To replace the casual conversations that happen in the office, they created a channel similar to a watercooler, where a different person is nominated daily to pose a question that’ll spur casual conversations.
“It’s worked extraordinarily well keeping people connected for more than just doing their work,” said Davis.
The company also created a parenting channel for coworkers to swap ideas for entertaining kids.
“It gave a connection point that they didn’t feel so alone, that they weren’t the only one in the office dealing with kid issues at home,” said Davis.
But in the early days of the pandemic some employees struggled.
Davis said she watched one co-worker with two young children, whose spouse worked out of the house, struggle until a relative moved in to help with childcare.
“She was just on and offline all the time. You know we’re an inclusive employer, we knew what was happening with her … she was still able to contribute heavily, but she was extremely happy when her daycare started taking kids again,” said Davis.
But the biggest problem facing all companies is the employees who don’t have a support network to help with childcare.
“As a society we have to look around and see who needs help and figure out who you could bubble with and who you can’t bubble with,” said Davis. “A lot of parents are really putting their hopes up on school and if it goes sideways again I think we’re going to see more impact. Right now everyone is still holding it together because it's theoretically temporary.”
At Bridgit, policies such as flex time — where employees work their hours as it suits their schedule — unlimited vacation, and cutting workdays in half on Fridays helped the construction resource management software company more easily accommodate their team of 51.
“It allowed for more flexibility and understanding, enabling parents to withstand the extra pressure faced during this time without leaving their job,” said Sarah Pepper, Bridgit’s director of community and culture.
The company also regularly polled employees to see how they were doing and if they needed help, said Pepper.
“If you’re at home and you have three kids around you who are under 10 years old, it’s pretty unrealistic to think that even with two parents in the home you’re able to get through your full work day without any interruption,” said Pepper.
Even if they couldn’t fix the problem, Bridgit still wanted to know so they could try and find a work around, such as rearranging meeting times. said Pepper.
One thing Pepper said she hadn’t considered was that some employees who lived alone in small apartments were also struggling to keep a work-life balance. The company put together resources with suggestions for how to keep a work-life balance and links to online counselling services.
While Bridgit didn’t create any policies specifically after the pandemic hit, Pepper said the policies they already had in place made the transition a bit easier. Employees were already comfortable using perks, such as a flexible schedule and unlimited vacation.
“For example, if they had to take every Monday off or every Friday off during the school year, we could accommodate it and they didn’t have to worry. Or if they wanted to go camping for a week and get away, they could go and do that and not worry about using all their vacation time up. It just takes the burden off of that planning, I think,” said Pepper.
But even with all of their policies in place, there are some things that are just out of the company’s control, Pepper added.
While they couldn’t do anything about people living in small studio apartments, Bridgit did open its office as soon as they safely could and let employees who wanted to return to the workplace with precautions in place.
But there are other challenges that opening an office just can’t address.
“If you are schooling remotely, you might have to make a plan for that and we’ll do our best to support you with that,” said Pepper. “Maybe it’s split hours during the day, maybe it’s not starting your workday until later in the day and working through the evening. We haven’t had anyone asking for those accommodations but we certainly would make them.”
The future of work
While employers like Arctic Wolf are looking ahead to what future work may look like — in the office, at home, or a combination of the two, McKinsey noted in its report that there are other things employers can do in the meantime: Make work sustainable, reset the norms around flexibility, reassess your criteria for performance reviews (if you have them), minimize gender bias at work, adjust your policies and programs to better support employees with more paid time off, for example, and, make sure you communicate with employees about how the pandemic is affecting the company to help ease anxiety.
One thing that may come out of the pandemic is a renewed focus on employee health. It’s an important way to retain individuals, said Estoesta Williams.
“If there’s one thing we can take from the pandemic it’s to make sure we’re caring for employees always,” she said.