In 2020, women made up around 50% of the U.S. workforce, 29% of senior management (heavily weighted in general and administrative), and 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs.  

Although COVID-19 has been more deadly for men, it has pushed more women out of the workforce. One reason is because the industries impacted most by the pandemic are also industries where a higher percentage of the workforce are women, including hospitality, marketing and education. Also, researchers estimate that 1.6 million mothers have left the workforce to take care of their children.  

These trends have set women back decades of gender equality gains. When half of humanity is disadvantaged, all of humanity suffers. The problems of our time are complex and urgently need solutions; in the midst of a global health pandemic, we also face economic disparity, climate change and irreversible mass extinction. If we believe that intelligence and hard work are equally distributed across genders, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, then our world and businesses are missing out on a lot of hardworking women who can help make it better.  

To help women return and stay in the workforce, most developed countries have childcare safety nets. The U.S. does not. Countries like Canada, the U.K., Australia, and all the Nordics have universal daycare and/or child allowances to support their youngest populations. Not surprisingly, these same countries have higher percentages of women in the workforce and in leadership and the lowest rates of children living in poverty compared to the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

Regardless of any policy improvements for women’s rights, businesses can do a lot to help women enter the workforce, stay there and close the leadership gap. Here are five examples.

Offer maternity and paternity leave. Generous family leave policies send a clear message that having children is completely accepted and expected. Make it the new parent’s responsibility to help the company come up with an interim plan on what to do with their workload and responsibilities during their leave. When I went on maternity leave in 2018, our corporate plan was the most well-documented and transparent it had ever been. Businesses can be more creative with family leave policies. Apartment List offers a transition plan back to work in addition to three months of leave. The new parent comes back to work for one day the first week back, then two days the second week back, and so on until they get back on a full five-day a week schedule for a less painful transition.  

One of the best ways to solve our massive problems effectively is to ensure we are using all the brains in the world to help solve them. That starts with ensuring that women, who make up half of humanity, also make up half of the paid workforce and leadership. ”
— Tracy Young, Co-Founder, PlanGrid share twitter

Set clear goals and expected outcome, not the work schedule. (The caveat: of course, every business and situation is different). Businesses can be more flexible with working parents so they can be creative on their schedules to accommodate their mom and dad responsibilities. If we set the right goals, then we can judge our teammates by the outcomes they accomplish and not the hours they work. Shelter-in-place has shown us that many fields can work just as effectively remotely. And employers can be more open-minded about what the workday looks like and more flexible about where the work should be done. Does a 9-5 workday correlate to the effectiveness of a worker? If we remove constraints, the team can figure out how to be successful as employees and as parents. For example, a new parent might prefer a working schedule of four 10-hour days.

Pay men and women equally for the same work. It is 2021, and the gender pay gap is still real and present. In the U.S., women make 82 cents for every dollar that men earn. The gap widens to 63 cents if it is a woman of color. Business leaders have a duty to ensure they are not contributing to these statistics. Every woman would love to work at a company that has taken an Equal Pay Pledge to pay men and women equally for comparable work, experience and performance. Everyone wants to work for a business that cares about fairness.

Make diversity a priority in the company. Unless the CEO is the only person recruiting, diversity and inclusion is the whole company’s responsibility. Give women good examples. Ensure leadership is diverse. It takes time to recruit great people and leaders. They exist, and they do not look just one gender or race. Provide training and mentorship opportunities for the team.  

Role models in engineering and STEM. Although women make up half of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), they are overrepresented in health care professions and severely underrepresented in engineering occupations (14%). Solving these gender challenges starts with encouraging girls to pursue STEM and engineering professions regardless of gender stereotypes. Equally important is giving girls good examples of other women who are successful in these fields. Seeing makes believing easier.  Something magical happens when we see a role model doing something we didn’t realize was possible. I would have never become a construction engineer had I not met female construction managers and executives. I would not have become a startup founder and CEO had I not seen other examples of women doing it before me. The support and role modeling needs to continue well past university because we know that nearly half of U.S. female scientists leave STEM fields after giving birth. Good company policies can close the gap that our culture has created.  

Companies have the power and duty to create and model a better future for our next generation. I believe one of the highest bandwidth ways to solve the massive and urgent problems of our time effectively is ensuring we are using all the brains in the world. This starts with ensuring that women, who make up half of humanity, also make up half of leadership in the world.  

Check out Young’s Women 2020 TED Talk