Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become intrinsic to and synonymous with organizational health in today’s world. This is partly because wider social forces have encouraged organizations to listen to and empathize with a broader group of stakeholders whose interests they affect — from investors to customers, employees, suppliers, vendors, communities and governments.

 

By this standard, how healthy are companies in the wake of the pandemic? A swing from the experience economy due to the renewed thirst for goods during the COVID-19 era has been detrimental to women, who dominate service industry jobs. And we know that increased caregiving responsibilities often fall on their shoulders. According to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Study, 44% of companies say that remote working has led women to exit the workforce. Why? Longer hours may be the culprit. Fewer women (40%) than men (52%) say they have reaped the benefit of shorter hours through remote working.

 

To make true and lasting progress toward gender equity, we cannot squander what we have learned from the pandemic. Instead, we must reset and then build a more gender-balanced future.

 

  1. Respondents who identify as female feel less energized than their male counterparts and are less likely to report that they are ‘thriving’. The clue to differences in energy levels might be found in why people feel burned out. For women respondents, burnout is due to exhaustion (mental demands from the pandemic) and workload. For those who identify as male, it’s due to a lack of fairness (how they perceive they are treated relative to their peers) and lack of community. Coming out of the pandemic, men are more likely to express a wish to dedicate more time to work (this may be due to having more capacity, as women report longer work hours). Perceptions of control are also likely to be a factor. Women feel slightly less empowered to take as much time off as they want, as long as they meet their goals (73% vs 63%).

  2. Perceptions of support differ. The study’s findings regarding workers’ perceptions of whether they are ‘thriving’ reveal that men have more positive perceptions of their work environment: they feel more supported to reskill, believe their manager is invested in their career success and view their work culture as healthy. Men are also more likely to have a positive outlook on their future prospects (e.g. that they will be financially secure, are confident that their skills can be applied to other roles and have greater trust that their company will provide a job if their current job is eliminated).

  3. Men and women think differently about flexible working. Men are more likely to favor returning to the office compared to women (55% vs 48%), and more men think work gets done in an office (67% vs 53%). Strikingly, men’s fears around remote working and the future of work are greater than women’s. Men are significantly more likely to express concerns about leaders switching remote workers into gig arrangements (70% vs 59%), remote working impeding social interactions (72% vs 62%) and becoming disconnected from the company culture (67% vs 57%). The gender difference carries through into how male and female C-suite executives think about the future of work. Differences in attitudes on return to work are strongest at senior levels, where one in three male executives fundamentally believe that work gets done in an office (compared to less than one in three female execs), and two-thirds of female leaders worry that top talent will not return to in-person working, compared to just over half of male business leaders. 

  4. Male and female executives have diverging outlooks on the future of work and the metrics that matter. When it comes to the workforce practices critical to their 2022 people agenda, women C-suite executives rank cultivating DEI in their workforce as #1, while male executives say reskilling opportunities are paramount. Therefore, it is no surprise that female leaders are more likely to have started recruiting among non-local talent pools for fully remote roles compared to their male counterparts (42% vs 35%) and more likely to have moved to a four-day workweek (34% vs 27%). And despite both groups recognizing the criticality of benefits and wellbeing this year, women are more likely to have health and wellbeing on their scorecard, while male executives are more likely to have productivity and total labor cost on theirs.

  5. One of the biggest concerns is that male executives are doing less to drive DEI. Soberingly, fewer male C-suite leaders feel they haven’t made as much progress on building a diverse, equitable and inclusive enterprise than female executives (27% vs 34%). So, it is a surprise that they are simultaneously less likely to be adding a Chief Diversity/D&I Officer role to their organization than female executives. What’s more, only two in five male executives plan to invest in monitoring for discriminatory algorithms and rating systems in 2022, compared to half of female leaders. With new disclosures arising and given increased laws on privacy, this is a miss.

The good news is that executives of all genders have DEI as a priority this year. To make that prioritization count, leaders should consider:

 

  • Taking a gender lens to return-to-work policies, especially on how to address emotion in bringing people back. For women, security around the future (financial education, time management) is critical. For men, establishing networking opportunities for those who work remotely will be important.

  • Avoiding inadvertent biases in opportunity due to choice-driven return-to-work policies. If left to preference, there is a tendency for older, male workers to return to the workplace and women (especially more diverse and younger women) to stay home. Without steps to counter the biases associated with presenteeism, such a disparity could lead to inequity in opportunity.

  • Helping women stay marketable. Men see the future of work through the lenses of technology and reskilling, while women crave balance. Again, if ways for women to gain the capacity to grow are not found, this could further widen the opportunity, pay and pension gaps between the genders.

  • Drive gender diversity on all decision-making teams, not just boards. It’s clear that women and male executives make different choices. Diversity of race, gender, background and age is critical to making quality decisions, from those on investment portfolios, to strategic bets and to the advancement of good work standards. Addressing cultural drivers to promote greater diversity at the leadership level, tools that configure diverse teams and parity in metrics across genders will ensure this gap doesn't widen.

Closing the gender gap requires that all stakeholders have their eyes wide open, keep an ear to the ground and – when progress stagnates – be among the many voices raising a rallying cry. In 2022, we expect to see organizations build off their gender commitments (such as those created under the Good Work Alliance) and set diversity goals for their employees, managers and (for some) partners in their supply chains. The hope is that these human capital metrics will permeate business plans and reporting this year.

 

My hope is that everyone reading this sets their own contribution commitments. We can’t solve the challenges of our time – the Great Resignation, the skill shortage, the shortage in front-line workers, and rising health and social costs – without addressing the very real challenges that women face. Caregiver challenges, role stereotyping, pay inequity and trailing pension adequacy are just a few of the factors holding gender parity back.

 

Together we need to take action to build inclusive work environments, sustainable talent practices and psychologically safe environments where the different skills and approaches of women are equally valued. This means moving beyond the boundaries of where and when we work, so that women can grab opportunities earlier in their careers and at the outer reaches of our business. My hope is that those who have the capacity to change women’s trajectories do not shy away from the challenge as they launch into building back their future of work agendas.

Kate Bravery
by Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer

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