Remember when taking a “gap year” —
to travel, volunteer, pursue a passion or maybe just do nothing
— was a privilege of undergraduate life? Well, 2020 was the pandemic gap year no one wanted.
And while getting back on track, workwise, is easier for some than for others,
bridging the gap has a lot to do with where in the world you are —
especially for women.
From geographies that thrive on knowledge workers to manufacturing and industrial hubs, the challenge of bringing women back into a post-pandemic workforce can’t be ignored. Indeed, U.S. women (and women of color more so) have been overrepresented in lower-wage and administrative jobs, losing far more of them than men did, while the burden of domestic caregiving has only made their lives harder during the pandemic. This is reflected internationally.
In France, for example, 36% of women experienced an increased workload (compared to 29% of men), while school closures resulted in 43% of women reporting an increase of four hours or more of household chores.
In a United Kingdom study, 46% of caregivers reported working the same hours at their job, but noted that fatigue and stress negatively affects their work. In the U.K. alone, where 1.4 million people provide more than 50 hours of work toward unpaid care per week, nearly one quarter of these caregivers have considered giving up their jobs completely because of the stress.
Compounding and confounding all this, traditional bias besets organizations when it comes to hiring and developing new generations of women and minorities. Will that bias be exacerbated by the glaring pandemic employment gap showing up on so many resumes? Whether candidates are viewed — fairly or not — as lacking in ambition or insufficiently skilled, those with resume gaps suffer a 45% lower chance of job interviewing than those who have held onto work.
Organizationally, solutions to pandemic-provoked inequity lean toward common sense. “Companies must be open and let candidates know they don’t discriminate against those who have taken time away from the workforce,” said Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta, a global equity management firm. “As leaders, we must continue to focus on candidates’ skills and their prior experiences.”
An Agenda of Inclusion
Women should be transparent about their COVID gap year on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, said Mallick, while leadership must continue its war against unconscious bias and overt favoritism, making hiring decisions that reward the best candidates.
Meanwhile, in Latin America, the traditions of male workforce hegemony run deep, but multinational manufacturing giants such as Kimberly-Clark recognize the opportunity in the challenge.
“In Latin America we are working in different initiatives as part of our inclusion and diversity (I&D) agenda and parity journey,” said Viviane Cury, vice president of human resources for Kimberly-Clark Latin America. “I&D is a priority for us, and we have a strong agenda for the coming years.”
Even so, a year out of work can worsen the skill gap for many workers, given that the COVID trauma led to an unanticipated acceleration of technology and networking solutions. Since March 2020, the pendulum has swung toward tech-savvy colleagues who can manage a mass Zoom meeting without forgetting to unmute. Those accustomed to low-tech administrative and service duties can face a steeper competitive curve.
“For women interested in upskilling and learning more about technology fields, Women Who Code is a great nonprofit to start with,” said Mallick. “Their mission is to inspire women to excel in technology careers. They offer access to global networks, recommendations on courses and curriculum, and provide scholarships and free tickets to conferences.”
“SheCan Connect … invites internal and external speakers to give keynotes and inspirational talks addressing women’s issues and how to realize career ambitions.”
But tech-savvy work isn’t necessarily limited to workers who either code or aspire to code. In India, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles has recently welcomed the first cohorts of women workers to its factories, a stereotype-shattering step made possible in part by advances in mechanization and robotics that no longer require heavy lifting so much as good hand-eye coordination for screens and joysticks. (Companies such as Tata Steel are following suit, developing training programs that can lead more women to, yes, coding and engineering degrees.)
As for Kimberly-Clark Latin America, the company has launched its SheCan program, promoting and supporting the development and networking of women leaders in Latin America. More than 450 Kimberly-Clark leaders across the region are participating in a variety of activities.
“For women, one powerful aspect of this program is its connection to the Kotex brand,” said Cury, “making very consistent what we express to our consumers and also to our employees internally.”
Upskilling Is Essential
Clearly, connecting to the power of brands can play a role in affirming corporate values to women in the workforce, with a segment-leading product such as Kotex as a symbol of Kimberly-Clark’s commitment to women’s well-being.
The SheCan program has four pillars. The first pillar: SheCan Connect, which invites internal and external speakers to give keynotes and inspirational talks addressing women’s issues and how to realize career ambitions.
Then there’s SheCan Inspire: “That is all about women mentoring women,” said Cury, noting that high-achieving women within the company have much to share with other employees.
Next, there’s SheCan Express, which gathers groups of female employees for interactive discussions and reflection. Finally, SheCan Grow focuses on career development, with personal brand workshops to ensure that women take advantage of everything from in-house networking opportunities and educational opportunities to the brand-advancing power of platforms such as LinkedIn.
Significantly, the pandemic gap year has led Kimberly-Clark Latin America to focus on the plight of working mothers. Cury is especially proud of its outreach program for attracting what she calls “Moms Talent” that has had to step out of the workforce amidst the COVID crisis.
“Moms looking to come back to work allows KC not only to walk the talk but also to connect with more [female] talent,” says Cury. “To ensure the success of this program, we have a change management plan that includes work on leadership awareness and [sensitization], along with support and guidance in the onboarding period.”
And that leads back to the issue of male commitment.
“Our focus is to work with our leaders to expand their inclusive leadership capabilities. This year we launched a training program that invites leaders to identify their own biases and define an action plan to work on them,” said Cury.
“The best way to overcome stereotypes is by talking about them, making them visible and exchanging real examples that provide evidence that they are only stereotypes. We also have a robust communication plan to show how possible it is to bring women into career areas that are predominantly male. It’s a journey that all of us in the company need to walk together.”
Still, there’s no avoiding the skills issue underscored by the ongoing pandemic pause. “We have different programs running across the region in order to assure the upskilling needed,” added Cury.
“These relate to agile and digital capabilities, revenue growth management and new leadership skills. In the leadership space, the pandemic and post-pandemic environment will require more empathetic, flexible and vulnerable leaders, and a collaborative environment. All of this upskilling will be essential — for men as well as women.”