I'm a chief human resources officer at an over 70,000-person company where 72% of staff are women. Here's how we're making sure they're supported in their careers.

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working mom

  • Maxine Carrington is deputy chief human resources officer at Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare system and private employer.
  • She says that while the pandemic is hopefully short-lived, the impact that it’s had on working mothers in the workplace will not be.
  • Employers need to step up and support women where they are, from focusing on their well-being to offering backup care options.
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It’s not easy for women to juggle work and family under the best of circumstances. As the pandemic enters its ninth month of devastation, it threatens to reverse a generation of gains for women in the workforce. A September report from McKinsey found that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

The research is clear: While COVID-19 itself is hopefully short-lived, its impact on women’s careers may last for years — if not decades. 

As deputy chief human resource officer at Northwell Health, I’m aware of the tough decisions our employees are facing right now. About 72% of our workforce is female, and I’ve seen firsthand how women are now grappling with caregiving responsibilities. This was an issue before COVID-19. Women’s careers have traditionally taken a back seat to their partners’ once they have kids.

Maxine Carrington Maxine Carrington.

But the pandemic has worsened this trend, as women are spending more and more hours navigating their kids’ Zoom calls instead of their own. A survey conducted this spring found that, on average, women were spending 65 hours a week on domestic responsibilities, compared with 35 hours pre-COVID. That’s the equivalent of a second job.

Companies have historically viewed caregiving responsibilities — whether it’s for children or aging parents — as something employees needed to navigate on their own. But we have a responsibility to help them shoulder the burden and not just because it’s the right thing to do. If we don’t, we may lose talented employees. Here’s what companies can do to better support women:

  • Have backup care available. Most of our employees need to be here in person, attending to patients. This was especially true when the worst of the pandemic hit in March and April. We had existing programs for emergency situations, like inclement weather, that we expanded when schools and daycares were closed. We set up subsidized childcare centers, where employees could drop children off for care — including remote learning — at a substantial discount. All companies should find ways to support parents. This could include letting people work from home and/or allowing parents to have a more flexible schedule so they can take time during the day to focus on their children.   
  • Focus on female employees’ well-being. Northwell prides itself on having holistic offerings that focus on self-care and well-being, like an emotional support hotline and virtual cooking and fitness classes. We want to encourage women to take care of themselves. If they are rested and rejuvenated, they’re not only more likely to stay at their job, but more likely to excel at it too. 
  • Take the time to really listen. We are in such unprecedented times that we can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past. Employers need to take a highly personalized approach and ask what they can do to help. During the pandemic, we’ve made a point of having team leaders reach out to their employees to offer support. It’s imperative that women feel comfortable speaking with their supervisors about the challenges they face and find their work environment to be a place of support, not a place of “no.” We know some of our staff may be trying to work while navigating virtual school for their children at the same time. It’s our job to be understanding and help them find a balance. 
  • Offer out-placement or career mobility assistance. Sometimes, a company will do everything in its power to retain an employee but ultimately finds that it doesn’t have the scope and ability to do so. In these cases, it’s important to still be supportive and help them navigate the next phase of their life. We’ve always done that. If a nurse manager, for example, needs to step down for a period of time because of overwhelming child or elder care, we try to find another position that better meets their needs.  

Even after the pandemic has resolved, long-term damage to women’s careers is likely to remain. If a woman leaves the workforce for any reason, they’re more likely to stay out of the workforce longer. It takes time to find a new job and is even more challenging to find a comparable one.

We’re hoping to mitigate some of these effects by creating a “returnship” program, where women who have been out of the workforce for a while — including taking a leave because of COVID-19 — can ease back into their healthcare career. This way, our female employees know there’s always a door open for them, when they’re ready to walk back through it. We’ve all worked too hard for too many decades to see well-deserved workforce gains wiped away in less than a year. 

Maxine Carrington is deputy chief human resources officer at Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care system and private employer.

Bastion Balance Seoul, Korea.