“SheCession” panelists say benefits, flexibility could lift all workers

Boston Statehouse

Mekala Krishnan of McKinsey Global Institute, Nia Mathis of Verizon and Maura Mann of BANKW Staffing spoke with Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement executive director Alexandra Valdez about ways to support women in the workforce during a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network event. (Screenshot)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Benefits for child and elder care, scheduling flexibilities and a knocking down of stigmas around taking advantage of those flexibilities are among the policies employers can consider as they look for ways to encourage women to stay in or return to the workforce after more than a year of COVID-19 disruptions, panelists said Wednesday during a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event.

Such actions can benefit all workers, not just women, and the companies that offer them, one researcher said.

“While we talk about the disproportionate impact on women, men have also been affected, and I think that what the dynamics has done is it’s brought people’s whole lives into the workplace in a way that we’ve never had before,” said Mekala Krishnan, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute.

“I think we have the opportunity to rethink these not just as women policies, but as people policies, and the more we start to do that we change our nomenclature around it, we make this about all the employees versus a certain group of employees,” she said. “I think that will start to reduce some of the stigmas associated with flexibility, it will start to change our practices around performance-management, it will make it acceptable to adopt these things and not feel like it’s affecting your career in a negative way.”

Krishnan spole during a virtual event hosted by the Chamber’s Women’s Network titled “SheCession – A Time for Action.” According to the Chamber, women outnumbered men in the U.S. paid workforce for a few months in early 2020, before the pandemic hit, and a year later more than 5 million women had lost their jobs, accounting for 55 percent of the country’s unemployment.

As more people become vaccinated against COVID-19 and government restrictions lift, businesses that abruptly launched experiments with remote work last year are faced with choices of what pandemic-era models they will keep in place, including developments like hybrids of remote and on-site operations, flexible hours and supports for caregivers.

“A lot of employers don’t realize it yet but there really is a war out there for talent, and as people — especially the women who have been affected and maybe stepped back or stepped out of the workforce — reenter, the employers that are going to be successful are going to be the people who offer options, who don’t say, ‘You need to be into the office at 8:30 a.m.,’ or the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge of, ‘Oh, you’re done at 5 o’clock, but if you’re not still sitting at your desk at 6:30, you’re not really working hard enough,’ ” said Maura Mann, vice president of The Nagler Group.

Economists and analysts are concerned about the COVID-19 recession’s impact on women, the MassBenchmarks editorial board noted in a summary of a discussion among its members earlier this month. The summary, released Wednesday, flagged that women “make up a disproportionate share of UI claimants and are experiencing decreased labor force participation rates.”

“At its core, the economic downturn exacerbated existing inequalities, and public policy will need to be geared towards helping community stability and job training to reduce long term economic and labor market scarring in the future,” it said.

During the Chamber discussion, speakers pointed to the expense and time associated with caring for children and older relatives, the need to balance work with household responsibilities, and the pandemic’s mental toll as among potential barriers to labor force participation.

Nia Mathis, vice president for state and local government affairs at Verizon, said the challenges facing working women need to be addressed with a holistic approach, and said that “one important practical area” where businesses can act is in their employee benefits packages.

She said Verizon expanded its reimbursement program for backup elder and child care, with a stipend of up to $100 per day for care that could be used to pay anyone including family or friends to babysit, realizing that existing benefits did not provide much help when many child care centers were closed early in the pandemic or care was otherwise hard to find.

“More than 11,000 of our employees used that benefit, and as a result, Verizon’s female employee turnover rate stayed at a record low,” she said.

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