Updated: Nov 21, 2021
The pandemic has set up backwards when it comes to gender equality. It will take more than 135 years to close the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report—which, largely because of Covid-19, is 36 years longer than was predicted last year.
In terms of the workplace, women’s labor force participation is now at what it was back in the 1980s. Of course, the barriers that women face in the workplace existed long before Covid, but are being amplified. There are a myriad of barriers added to the increased caregiving responsibilities of homeschooling after school shut downs, from the pay gap to the motherhood penalty to the lack of affordable childcare to the current nonexistence of a national paid leave policy.
So what will it take to create workplaces that work for women, for men, for everyone? A new report from the TIME’S UP Impact Lab suggests it’s in large part about changing the beliefs and biases we hold about who an ideal worker is exactly. Known as “Ideal worker norms,” they are a set of expectations about how employees should behave if they want to succeed at work.
The report says ideal worker norms were “designed around the experiences of men who have been able to devote their lives to work only because women took on (and continue to take on) the vast majority of unpaid care work at home, and they no longer reflect the realities of workers in the United States: men and women who are increasingly taking on both paid and unpaid labor and therefore have less time to devote solely to work.”
“It’s time to finally create workplaces that actually work for 21st century workers, rather than the workers from 150 years ago at the time of the Industrial Revolution—which is the way work is currently organized right now,” says Tina Tchen, President and CEO of TIME'S UP Now and the TIME'S UP Foundation.
To create more equitable workplaces for women, it’s imperative that they are designed with caregivers in mind. Here are a few ideas for how we can update outdated ideal worker norms so that everyone has a greater opportunity to thrive.
Offer Flexible And Predictable Schedules. An outdated ideal worker norm is someone who works around the clock. This means someone who sacrifices their personal life to meet unpredictable or inflexible schedule demands, which is harder for caregivers who don’t have as much time flexibility, but is punishing for all workers.
While there has been much written about how flexible schedules benefit caregivers, 75% of whom are currently women, the element of predictability should also be an essential part of the conversation. The flexibility of working from home, as many have seen during the Covid economy, can also be detrimental if workers are expected to be “always on.” Being regularly pulled into last-minute Zoom meetings or answering Slack messages at midnight hinders caregivers who have increased home responsibilities—and further enforces the always-on work expectation.
Adding predictability to flexibility, such as by creating clear expectations for meeting times and work correspondence, can help all workers achieve better work-life balance.
For example, a company might set “core working hours” when all employees are expected to be available for Zoom meetings, such as between 10am and 2pm, to allow for people to schedule their meetings in a set time frame and then finish their work in a way that best suits their individual personal responsibilities. Another example may be to make policies such as “Zoom-free Fridays” or set the boundary that Slack messages sent after 7pm aren’t answered until the following business day. This adds structure and greater predictability to flexible or work-from-home schedules.
Hold Managers Accountable For Burnout. The expectation of being “always on” is reinforced by leaders and workers who stay late, regularly send emails after hours and work on the weekends. In order to create workplaces that work for everyone, it’s time to bust expectations of overwork. It’s perpetuated by managers who set unrealistic timelines for accomplishing tasks, and employees who push to meet those deadlines.
A way to overcome this is for leaders to build in feedback from direct reports to better gauge whether they feel burned out, if they’re working longer hours and whether they feel workloads are evenly distributed across the team. Holding managers accountable who aren’t taking steps to prevent burnout, such as by withholding bonuses or promotions, can help drive culture change.
Reward Broader Leadership Characteristics. While a slight majority of Americans think men and women have different leadership styles, the vast majority think both women and men possess key traits needed for effective leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. However, unconscious bias may impact the way we act, regardless of how we think we feel about women leaders: Other research found that when study participants were asked to choose the most important traits for a leader, they tended to pick stereotypically masculine traits (such as assertiveness) and devalue stereotypically feminine traits (such as communality).
“We need to change what leadership means, especially given the impact of the pandemic and the social unrest,” says Terri Gallagher, president and CEO of Gallagher and Consultants. “When I started my business, I took courses and read books on leadership. Many of them had messages such as, “kill or be killed,” and “business is a jungle.” That didn’t work for me, but then I learned to leverage my strengths of authenticity and vulnerability, and my business improved. It’s important for people to understand that these traits are superpowers, and it doesn’t mean we aren’t competitive or won’t do what it takes to win.”
To shift the definition of what a good leader is, employers should advance employees who display a wide set of leadership qualities—not only those limited to stereotypically masculine traits. Also, employers should put the right criteria in place to ensure they’re evaluating accomplishments rather than personality, and create regular moments to document accomplishments.
The bottom line is that shifting workplace norms will benefit not only caregivers, but us all. It’s about creating more human workplaces where everyone has an opportunity to thrive.
“Much like we don’t have time to wait for social justice or dismantling white supremacy, we don’t have time to wait for leaders to get the wake up call,” says Tosca DiMatteo, founder of TOSCA Coaching and Consulting. “The time is now for awakening. The time is now for human-centered workplaces.”
Article originally published in Forbes.