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Women at Work: Bridging the Global Gap Year

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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 and the coronavirus pandemic gave us the gap year that 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 (especially women of color) have been overrepresented in lower-wage and administrative roles, losing far more of those jobs than men, while the burden of domestic caregiving has only made their life harder during the pandemic disruption. This is true outside of the U.S. as well.  

In France, 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 additional household chores. In a UK study, 46% of caregivers reported working the same hours at their job, but noted their work is negatively affected by fatigue and stress. In the UK 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 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 pandemic employment gap glaring from 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 company. “As leaders, we must continue to focus on candidates’ skills and their prior experiences.”

Mallick also urges women to be transparent about their COVID-19 gap year on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, 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 agenda and parity journey,” said Viviane Cury, VP of HR 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-19 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,” Mallick noted. “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.”

But tech-savvy work isn’t necessarily limited to workers who code or aspire to code. In India, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles welcomed the first cohorts of women workers to its factories this year. This stereotype-shattering step was made possible, in part, by advances in mechanization and robotics that no longer require heavy lifting as much as good hand-eye coordination for screens and joysticks. (Companies like 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, Cury notes that 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, making very consistent what we express to our consumers and also to our employees internally,” Cury said. 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.

Cury outlined the SheCan program’s four sequential pillars:

  1. SheCan Connect, which invites internal and external speakers to give keynotes and inspirational talks addressing women’s issues and how to realize career ambitions.
  2. SheCan Inspire. “That is all about women mentoring women,” said Cury, noting that high-achieving women within the company have much to share with aspiring employees.
  3. SheCan Express, which gathers groups of female employees for interactive discussions and reflection.
  4. SheCan Grow, which focuses on career development, with personal brand workshops to ensure that women take advantage of everything from in-house networking 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-19 crisis.  “Moms looking to come back to work allows KC not only to walk the talk but also to connect with more women talent,” Cury said. “To ensure the success of this program we have a change management plan that includes work on leadership awareness and sensibilization, 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,” Cury said. “This year we launched a training program that invites leaders to identify their own biases and define an action plan to work on them. The best way to overcome stereotypes is by talking about them, making them visible and exchanging real examples that provide evidence that they are onlystereotypes. 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,” Cury said. “These relate to agile and digital capabilities, RGM (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.”

About the Author

Matt Damsker Bio Image

Matt Damsker is a former principal with Mercer, an author and journalist. He served as managing editor of Human Resource Executive magazine, as a staff reporter and columnist with several leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Hartford Courant and is a regular contributor to USA Today.


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