Joanne Lipman: 7 ways to ensure women don't backslide in their careers during COVID-19

The pandemic is economically hurting women and minorities the most. Lipman, an author and former chief content officer of Gannett talks about steps companies, individuals and the government can take to ensure women’s continued progress.
Joanne Lipman, former chief content officer of Gannett, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of the best-selling book, "That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together."
Joanne Lipman, former chief content officer of Gannett, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of the best-selling book, "That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together."Courtesy of Joanne Lipman

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By Joanne Lipman

It isn’t your imagination. The millions of job losses over the past few months have slammed women harder than men.

Women accounted for 55 percent of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April, with women of color hit particularly hard. While May's overall unemployment rate declined slightly to 13.3%, it actually increased for black women, to 16.5%. Making matters worse, even women who have held on to their jobs bear the brunt of childcare, home schooling and housework. Boston Consulting Group recently found that American moms are working 60 additional hours on childcare, schooling and chores every week, beyond their paid jobs.

If we don’t take action now, the pain is likely to continue long after the pandemic ends. After all, one reason women have made substantial gains in employment over the past few years – reaching the majority of the workforce for the first time earlier this year – is because the unemployment rate has been so low. Companies scrambling to compete for scarce talent were eager to recruit women and minorities. But when times are tight and unemployment is high, diversity efforts are often first to be scrapped.

RELATED: A 'full-blown she-cession': How COVID-19 is economically hurting women, minorities the most

Yet this is exactly the time when companies should be investing more in women and people of color. Companies with diverse workforces weather recessions better than those without. A Fortune magazine analysis found that from 2007 to 2009, stock prices for S&P 500 companies plunged by almost 36 percent - but the most diverse companies saw gains averaging 14.4 percent.

The good news is, there are steps that all of us can take – companies, individuals, and the government – to ensure that women’s progress doesn’t slide irretrievably backwards.

For companies, there are proven strategies that will help not just women, but all employees, including:

-Remote Working: At a time when even Fortune 500 CEOss are working from their basements, let’s acknowledge that remote working works. Mothers have long been sidelined from jobs and promotions (or shut out altogether) because of the insistence on face time and travel. Already, companies including Facebook and Twitter have said that employees who can do their jobs remotely never have to come back to the office. Big Manhattan firms including Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley have said it’s unlikely that all workers will return to offices.

-Returnships: Before COVID-19 struck, there was a surge in programs that brought back employees who had taken career breaks. So-called “returnships” are structured like internships, but for those who have taken off a few years, often to raise kids. About two dozen companies including IBM, Apple, and Johnson & Johnson built programs specializing in tech jobs, with the help of the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch, a career re-entry firm. Path Forward, a non-profit, worked with companies including Netflix, SAP, and Walmart to help develop returnship programs.

It’s essential that companies don’t abandon these efforts after the crisis wanes. In fact, these programs will become more essential than ever: even before the pandemic, 84 percent of millennials of both genders said they expected to take a “significant” career break at some point in their careers, according to a survey commissioned by ManpowerGroup.

-Assess job-cut impact: As companies downsize, furlough or lay off employees, women and people of color are feeling the brunt of the pain. Companies need to assess the demographics of those being cut, to ensure that marginalized populations aren’t being disproportionately impacted. Make the extra effort to ensure that women who are temporarily juggling childcare and home schooling aren’t penalized permanently.

In addition to corporate moves, there are steps that women can take right now, during the pandemic, including:

-Make sure you’re visible: Remote working presents additional challenges for women who are often overlooked, interrupted or ignored in meetings. Zoom meetings can be especially deadly, as the body language that women have painfully perfected in order to be noticed is no longer available. What’s more, women and others from underrepresented groups may simply not be invited to key meetings.

Yet some of the same hacks that work in person, will work in Zoom meetings and Slack channels too. The key is to have allies who will back you up. One of my favorite hacks is amplification – when an overlooked colleague makes a point, you repeat it and give her credit by name, thus amplifying her voice. Another favorite tactic is “brag buddies”: you and a colleague share success stories with one another – and then each of you “brags” to the boss about the other one.

-Ask for Zoom check-ins: Stay top of mind by requesting a Zoom meeting with your boss – and perhaps with both your boss and their boss. When you do connect, as Mika Brzezinski pointed out during our Instagram Live conversation, make sure you ask after them personally. We all need that human touch, especially right now in this fraught time.

Periodic check-ins will not only give you feedback on your own performance; you’ll also learn about potential other projects or openings. So many career opportunities flow from casual hallway interactions, serendipitous elevator meetings, or bumping into the boss in the cafeteria. It’s essential to replicate those interactions as much as possible.

-Reach out to your network, especially your “weak ties”: If you’re looking for new opportunities, your best bet may be your “weak ties” – people who you don’t talk to every day. Reams of research , including this analysis of LinkedIn data, have found that when you’re job hunting, people in your larger network are far more likely to help surface a job opportunity than those closest to you.

You can tap into nontraditional employment resources as well; for example, AARP has created a Job Board (jobs.aarp.org) that lists opportunities in your area ranging from hourly retail up to management positions.

-Engage men: Women talking to each other about the issues we face at work is helpful – but it’s half a conversation. We need to engage men, both at home and at work. At home, have an honest conversation about how to handle two careers. A publishing executive friend with two toddlers splits the day with her husband: She is primary caretaker in the mornings while he focuses solely on work, then they switch roles in the afternoon.

RELATED: 3 ways women can embrace male allies to close the gender gap

Male executives have a role to play, too, Even the best male bosses fall prey to unconscious biases. We’ve all seen it - when a child interrupts a man zooming or broadcasting from his home office, the internet erupts about the cuteness factor – but when the same happens to a woman, she is written off as “not serious” about her job. We need to actively work against the stereotypes. What’s more, don’t penalize the women who aren’t able to join the Zoom happy hour because the burden of cooking dinner or putting kids to bed.

Finally, there are essential steps government should take. Top of the list is paid family leave – the U.S. is the only country in the industrialized world without it. The pandemic has also brought home, in the most visceral way, how essential it is to have government-funded or -subsidized childcare, in the same way that we have government -funded schools. Childcare is especially essential for single moms, who make up the vast majority of the 11 million single-parent U.S. households. Single working parents spend more than half of their income on childcare, and daycare in most states costs more than college.

We all want the American economy as a whole to recover – but we won’t get there if we ignore half of the working population. It’s time to step up and acknowledge that issues like family leave, childcare and diverse workforces aren’t luxury items. They’re essential tools for the post-COVID-19 future.

Joanne Lipman is former chief content officer of Gannett, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of the best-selling book, "That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together."