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Special Pandemic Report - What Works for Women

What’s Working for Women in the Workplace? The pandemic has been especially hard on women, coupled with the racial unrest over the last year, it’s amazing what women have been able to accomplish. Their resilience is shining bright and there are many lessons we can learn from companies that have pro-actively taken charge and made changes to make the workplace better for all.

This is the second in a series of articles I’m writing about women in the workplace. This one focuses in on where women stand including what gains have been made, what is working for women, and what types of pandemic support companies have been offering.

The first article, “Are You Rewarding Those Holding Your Company Together?”[1] shined the spotlight on the things women have been doing during the pandemic to literally hold their teams and companies together. This article also highlighted that much of this extra effort has gone unrecognized and unrewarded, something that can easily be rectified. Don’t miss the opportunity to do just that!

The majority of the data herein comes from the just published 2021 Women in the Workplace report, a joint effort between McKinsey & Co and Lean In.[2] This data captures the current impact of the pandemic. The data represents 423 organizations that employ 12 million people. It includes survey data from more than 65,000 employees.

Where Women Stand

Let’s start with some good news. The representation of women has improved over the last year. The changes are small, but in a year where seemingly everything slide backward, positive change is a good sign. The chart below shows the change in representation for all women from 2020[3] to 2021.

The picture becomes more murky when you break out the data for women of color. Women of color are defined as non-white women and include Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native, and Pacific Island women. In 2019 they make up roughly 20% of the US population.[4] Small gains were made in representation in the upper echelons of corporate America for Women of Color, but you can see the impact of the pandemic, particularly in the entry level positions. In an earlier article, “The Trouble with Women: The Shecession”[5], I addressed why the pandemic hit women much harder than men and also addressed why some demographic sectors of women were hit particularly hard, as they occupied the industries that were most affected by the pandemic.

What is fantastic to see in this data are the gains in the upper echelons. This data shows that more women of color were promoted at the higher ranks. This is a much-needed change and a trend I hope to see accelerate.

All women continue to lose ground on the first step up the corporate ladder, from employee to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. This year for the first time ever, women of color were promoted at almost the same rate as women overall, clocking in at 85 for every 100 men. This first level of promotion is critical for women and companies that are measuring and reporting out this statistic internally. Those companies are bound to get better results. If your company claims they can’t find enough qualified women, then they need to pay particular attention to this metric, as it is a direct indicator of how they are building their talent pipeline.

What’s Working for Women

There are many companies that are making great strides for their women and these companies are being richly rewarded. So, what are they doing and what practices are they using to achieve fairness and equity?

First, many companies are using several practices that push for equity and fairness in both the hiring process and in performance reviews. These practices include:

Practices to ensure fairness in hiring

· Ensuring diverse slates of candidates including multiple women are offered to hiring managers

· Offering Bias training for hiring managers

· Providing reminders of how to avoid unconscious bias before the hiring process begins

Practices to ensure fairness in performance reviews

· Offering bias training for performance reviewers

· Providing reminders of how to avoid unconscious bias before performance reviews

· Encourage performance reviewers to take the pandemic into consideration

The table below shows the percentage of companies that are implementing these practices in the companies that were included in the surveys.

Track Representation, Hiring, and Promotion Outcomes

Keep track of not just women overall, but also women of color – if you aren’t tracking this, you are flying blind. If you are tracking it and the results are not what you expect, then you have the data that you can use to start making adjustments to your hiring, performance review, and promotion process.

“Only 65% of companies track promotion rates by gender, and only 35% track promotions specifically for women of color.”


This next one seems obvious, but it is the most often overlooked lever, accountability. To use accountability to your advantage you need to:

1. Have diversity goals – published and visible to all

2. Hold senior leaders and managers accountable for progress against those goals

3. Offer financial incentives to leaders who meet or exceed these goals

A summary of the data on Accountability from the companies surveyed is shown in the table below.

“…Only two thirds of companies hold senior leaders accountable for progress on diversity goals.”

“…among companies that hold senior leaders accountable, less than half factor progress on diversity metrics into performance reviews and far fewer provide financial incentives for meeting goals.”

It is clear that accountability is a strong lever that can be used to improve performance. When Diversity is a business priority, progress toward goals leads to advancement and compensation for leaders and managers. It is also clear that we need to push accountability down deeper into organizations if we’d like to see an acceleration of progress.

Pandemic Support

In an earlier article, I reported on the “The Great Resignation,”[6] where many women (and men) are quitting their jobs (footnote) for a variety of reasons.

Many companies have either not experienced this or minimized it, because they have gone the extra mile during the pandemic to support their women and all employees. As the pandemic lingers companies can certainly consider offering some of these services to better support their employees. The cost to rehire, onboard, and train new employees is quite expensive, if you can even find the talent. It seems much wiser to retain your employees by reinvesting in them.

The chart below shows the variety of support that companies offered prior to 2020, along with the additional support they have added during the pandemic.

From flexible working hours to additional leave and healthcare benefits, many companies have recognized the need and stepped up. As if a pandemic wasn’t enough, the last year has brought much racial unrest and as you can see above, companies have provided added support to their Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) who often serve as both listening posts and offer senior leaders guidance on the types of support that various employees might need.

Looking Forward

There are so many actions companies can be doing to not only help women recover from the pandemic, but to thrive. And when they thrive, the companies they work for will follow suit. This article outlines many actions that companies can take to move themselves forward on this journey. One of the most important is to take the first steps and then keep pushing forward. Look at your current practices and see how they align with those outlined here. I highly encourage you to download the full 2021 McKinsey Lean In report as there is much more information to available there.

I plan to write several more articles expanding on the information contained in the 2021 Women in the Workplace Study. Feel free to follow me so you’ll not miss the future articles I have planned on Microaggressions and Burnout.

[1] Cornwell, Karen; “Are You Rewarding Those Holding Your Company Together?” Medium, Sept 30, 2021. [2] Thomas, Rachel; et al; “Women in the Workplace – 2021,” McKinsey & Co and Lean In, 2021. [3] Thomas, Rachel; et al; “Women in the Workplace – 2020,” McKinsey & Co and Lean In, 2020. [4]Women of Color in the United States: Quick Take” Catalyst, Feb 1, 2021. [5] Cornwell, Karen; “The Trouble with Women: The Shecession,” Medium, March 30, 2021. [6] Cornwell, Karen. “I Quit – The Great Resignation,” Medium, June 23, 2021.

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