In the past century, women have made significant progress in the workplace. There are now more female college graduates than male, and women enter the workforce at the same quantity and with the same dedication as their male counterparts. Despite starting out equal, we see the number of women rapidly decrease as we climb higher up the corporate leadership rank.

As a global pandemic has forced most workers to become remote and children to stay home from school, there are serious warnings that this period will result in a backward slide in decades of progress for women in the workplace. This is because it is often mothers who are picking up the slack in childcare, homeschooling, and household tasks.

For many years, the focus has been on what women can change or “fix” about themselves to make gains in their careers. However, if the answer is to “lean in,” women are never going to catch up. It is time to examine what companies can do—and research has shown that a key place to start is ensuring there is work-life balance embedded in corporate culture. What does work-life balance have to do with gender equity?

Does your culture encourage work-life balance for all?

The most successful organizations will prioritize the well-being and work-life balance of their employees along with work efficiency. Companies with better work-life balance are proven to be more innovative, productive, and have more engaged and content employees.  However, work-life balance has another significant benefit when integrated effectively: it is a major contributor to achieving gender parity.

What does this look like in the workplace?

Flexible Working

There is an increasing demand for “flexible working” from younger generations, leading to its rising popularity in industrialized nations over the past several years. The concept of flexible working looks like workers having control over where and during what hours they work.

Flexible hours are especially crucial for parents who can adapt their work hours to family obligations and demands. Additionally, flexible hours can allow for new mothers to maintain some working hours after childbirth (a time period when women often lose valuable time in career progression.) Parents allowed to work from home can better integrate paid time and childcare. Lengthy commutes that add time to parental absence and therefore needed childcare may be eliminated—given that many parents experience the high cost of childcare as a barrier to mothers returning to work—the ability to work flexibly provides a solution that allows for many more women to return to their careers as it is most often their work that is sacrificed when childcare expenses mount.

As many families are home with their children due to quarantines and virtual school, acceptance of flexible working can be crucial for parents getting their work done in the early hours of the morning or late at night when their children are asleep. Current conditions have made flexible working a necessity for many.

Thoughtful Scheduling

The reality is that despite women’s advancement in the professional sphere, they are still doing the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities at home. This disproportionate share of family responsibilities often holds women back from “leaning in” to their careers in the way they are encouraged to.

A practice taken on by some companies is to not schedule highly important or all-team meetings late in the evening when children need to be taken care of. Thoughtful scheduling can go a long way to ensure that neither parent is excluded from important business activity and therefore penalized in their careers.

Paternity Leave

A multitude of studies proves the numerous benefits of paternity leave. More large companies are beginning to offer paternity leave, yet fewer than one third of new fathers choose to take it. Why?

Often, the corporate culture is to blame. Studies have shown that men who take family leave are viewed as “poor organizational citizens,” and therefore their careers are penalized. The “flexibility stigma” against fathers has shown to significantly reduce his earnings over the course of his career.

Punitory corporate culture is holding men back from taking this key step. A corporate environment that encourages men to take a lead role in their home life will be much more likely to have women reach their leadership ranks—which has its own benefits to business.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many aspects of society, one of which is its threat to significant gains in gender parity over the past decades. Gender parity has benefits for not only women but their male colleagues and family members, as well as companies themselves. As your company is likely facing questions and challenges in how to transform your business, it is worth considering how you will create an environment in which all your employees are able to thrive.

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