Rachel Thomas of Leanin.org hopes companies will keep a focus on employee mental health and well-being.

Career Insight: Lean In’s Rachel Thomas on New Challenges for Women at Work

Rachel Thomas is co-founder and CEO of Leanin.org, an organization that helps women achieve their ambitions and works to create an equal world. Lean In publishes an annual Women in the Workplace report, a comprehensive study of the state of women in Corporate America.

Thomas joined  Wharton Business Daily radio host Dan Loney on SiriusXM Ch. 132 in June to talk about findings from the group’s most recent report, which suggests that women in the workplace have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. “We’ve coined the term “She-cession” for a reason,” said Thomas. “It has always been challenging for mothers, for caregivers and for people with disabilities in the workplace. The pandemic has put a lot of those challenges in high relief.”  

Wharton Dean Erika James led a faculty discussion on the topic this March, which you can explore in the Knowledge@Wharton article Has the Pandemic Set Female Leadership Back?

And as we think about how the pandemic is changing the business landscape and creating new opportunities and challenges for future workers, here are four questions for Leanin.org’s Rachel Thomas:

Wharton Business Daily: How deeply have women been impacted during the pandemic?

Rachel Thomas: Here’s what we know: Women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in terms of job losses…The last time we conducted our “Women in the Workplace” study was June 2020. It’s the largest study of its kind conducted every year looking at the state of women in the corporate workplace. At that point, one in four women were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. We called it a crisis at that time and believe that it continues to be an issue. What are the second-order effects of the pandemic? What about those women who stayed in the workforce — and many did because they have no choice; they need to work, they need incomes. They’re now struggling with burnout and many have been forced to take their foot off the gas at work, so that’s going to impact their career progression. And we know that there’s a lot of bias already that women face in the workplace when it comes to advancing. There’s a lot of evidence that that bias may be in high relief right now as we’re going through the pandemic.

Wharton Business Daily: If you’re struggling to get to equal footing in pay between men and women in the first place, this pandemic won’t help that process out. How has it increased these challenges for women?

Thomas: Here’s what we see in our research year over year: Women are less likely to get that first critical promotion to manager. It’s not because they’re not asking. Men and women are asking for promotions at the same rates. But for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 72 women are, and 68 Latinas and 58 Black women. Here’s why that really concerns me moving forward. We had an issue with women getting promoted into that first level, that first step that really advances your career, pre-pandemic. Imagine what it might look like now? We know from years of research that bias can hurt women’s chances of getting hired and promoted and we also know that bias is more likely to creep in when managers have less visibility into their teams’ day-to-day work. If you take those two things and put them together, you can imagine women getting promoted more slowly and that adds insult to injury. We know women are already paid less on average than men and if they’re being promoted more slowly and advancing more slowly through their organizations, the downstream impacts to that could be quite extreme.

“Mothers are twice as worried as fathers that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities.” — Rachel Thomas, CEO, Leanin.org

Wharton Business Daily: Does working from home complicate matters further?

Thomas: The experience of mothers: When kids are running behind us on Zoom screens, we’re getting pushed and pulled in multiple directions because we have work responsibilities and home responsibilities and they’re kind of jamming together in ways they never have before. That really matters. We know that women who are mothers are much more likely to be responsible for all or most of the household work. That was pre-pandemic and it’s happening now today. We also know that mothers are twice as worried as fathers that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities. They’re so worried that one in three mothers say they’re uncomfortable sharing their work-life challenges with co-workers. If you play that out, what is the long-term impact on mothers? Are they holding themselves back because they’re being pushed and pulled in too many directions or are they being evaluated differently?

The other thing I’m worried about is the move to remote work and how that might play out long-term. One thing we know for sure is that remote work is here to stay. Now at what level — is that a couple days a week, is that hybrid, what does that look like? We don’t know, but we know it’s here to stay. The positive piece of it is that 70% of companies think it will allow them to increase diversity in hiring. And it will create opportunities for people to go for jobs that maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have gone for because they required travel or they required moving. So there’s some real upside potentially connected to remote work.

But what I’m concerned about and what I think companies need to be aware of is are we inadvertently going to create two classes of employees: employees who are in the office and get more access to information, more access to senior leaders, their contributions are more likely to be seen; and employees who are primarily at home who have less access and are less likely to be seen? Those will be disproportionately mothers or caregivers. We need to think about how are we going to move to remote work and lean into the benefits of it. The flexibility we know that employees so desperately want and we know that is so beneficial for a lot parents and caregivers and people with disabilities is critical, but we also need to make sure we are creating a level playing field between workers that are in the office and workers who are at home.

Wharton Business Daily: Where is this path leading right now and is there hope that if businesses will make some adjustments and understand the potential problems, then maybe you can start to turn a corner and head back in the right direction?

Thomas: We see a couple bright spots in our “Women in the Workplace” research…Companies are bullish that remote work will lead to more diversity in hiring and more opportunities for diverse employees to advance in their organization. That’s the good news. The second thing that we see is that companies have been investing in mental health and employee well-being at higher levels than we’ve ever seen in the past. And we know that employees have more visibility than ever before into what’s going on in each other’s lives. We do think this is planting the seeds of a more empathetic workplace.

If organizations can keep that focus on mental health and employee well-being and the new programs they’ve put in place to make sure employees are more deeply supported, and even double down on them. And then bring an awareness of what are the additional things they need to do to level the playing field between workers in the office and workers at home, there’s a real possibility for a workplace that actually is more diverse and inclusive. It’s going to take a lot of thoughtfulness. We’re certainly at a crossroads where if organizations don’t boldly commit and recommit to advancing women and particularly women of color and women with marginalized identities, we’re going to continue to see more women leave the workforce or not advance as quickly as they should be.

Conversation Starters

What crisis did Rachel Thomas and her team at Leanin.org identify when the pandemic escalated in June 2020?

What are three key takeaways from this interview with Rachel Thomas about how the pandemic is impacting the workplace?

Do you have any personal connections to this topic? Possibly a relative or friend who has struggled with some of the same issues? Share your story in the Comment section of this article.

Why do you think companies are bullish that remote work will lead to more diversity in hiring and more opportunities for diverse employees to advance in their organization?

3 thoughts on “Career Insight: Lean In’s Rachel Thomas on New Challenges for Women at Work

  1. I appreciate Lean In’s work and strong voice as their team advocates for equity and inclusion. A first step toward change is bringing awareness to the issues and amplifying the data and discussion to policymakers and corporate decision makers. Drilling down into these issues is critical as companies consider the impact on workers’ lives and strategically and intentionally design a workplace experience that considers the reality for all employees, not just a subset. I personally watched a friend buckle under the pressure of balancing children and professional responsibilities during the pandemic. She was very reluctant to speak up to her employer because she didn’t want to appear incapable, unprofessional or weak. Women need to do it all with grace and ease, right? Wrong. That mindset comes with serious diminishing returns. Now, more than ever, we need to speak up and let our voices reflect the reality of our lives so that we are not left behind in today’s workforce revolution.

    1. Much of the inequality between men and women stems from history. In the past, women have been seen as only deserving to remain in the domestic sphere of work, rather than being able to enjoy success in a more public presence. As women became more involved in the workforce, however, more institutional methods of discrimination were placed into effect: companies became blind to gender discrimination, women suffered from lower wages, and were often barred from succeeding in the field. If more of these injustices were publicized, efforts taken to secure human rights, especially in the workforce, would be more effective. After all, half of the ability to cause change should be taken on the part of society. And this knowledge is only able to be ascertained through early education on social injustice, which includes sexism. In this way, by educating students from an early age on issues like gender discrimination, students will be more willing to act against it in the future.

      1. Hi Dhiya. I agree with you that we must learn from history…or we are destined to repeat it. You make some great points, especially this idea that change can’t just be led by decision-makers or policymakers, but needs to be part of a collective societal mindset. I find it so interesting that you allude to domestic work vs. the professional workplace because that duality is leading to new challenges for women as they try to “balance” family and career without sacrificing their opportunities or effectiveness on either side. It will take a concerted effort toward problem-solving to acknowledge and respect this balancing act (not resent or dismiss it) and give all employees more inclusive chances to thrive and advance.

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