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The New Unpaid Office Housework For Women: Being DEI Leaders

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 28, 2021

Women in leadership are showing up as the people leaders companies need to navigate the societal and workplace disruptions spurred by the global pandemic, yet their work is going largely unrecognized and unpaid.

Compared to men at the same level, women in senior leadership are 60% more likely to provide emotional support to employees and 24% more likely to ensure their teams’ workloads are manageable, according to the new 2021 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. 

Other report findings include that women leaders are also twice as likely to spend a substantial amount of time doing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work outside of their formal job responsibilities, such as recruiting candidates belonging to underrepresented communities and leading employee resource groups. At every level, women are more likely than men to show up as allies to women of color.

While companies are saying DEI and employee mental health are top priorities (90% of companies say DEI is a top or very important priority and 60% have expanded or added mental health benefits as a response to the pandemic), only 25% say that their formal performance review process recognizes this type of work to a substantial degree, according to the new report. I spoke to Rachel Thomas, cofounder and CEO of LeanIn.Org, to unpack some of the biggest takeaways.

Women Are Workplace Culture Builders

We’ve seen women being pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic, in large part due to increased caregiving responsibilities. When women help lead the charge on DEI work that contributes to the bottom line, but that isn’t formally recognized or compensated, companies may be at even greater risk of losing them.

“Women leaders are literally showing up as the leaders we need right now, because they’re focused more on employee wellbeing and on diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Thomas. “It’s hard to imagine organizations are going to be able to navigate this pandemic if we’re not deeply focused on employee wellbeing, and it’s hard to imagine organizations being able to build the diverse, inclusive cultures we so desperately need if we’re not really focused on DEI. It’s also interesting that despite added stress and added exhaustion—because we know women are more burned out—they’re rising to the moment.”

Women Are Taking On The “New Office Housework”

“My hope is that this year’s report will be the sounding alarm that we need to create the connective tissue between what companies prioritize and what they’re actually recognizing and rewarding,” says Thomas. “If they don’t, I worry it’s going to go the way of the new office housework, which is work that’s mission critical to the health of organizations, but—because it’s not included in performance reviews, doesn’t lead to advancement or doesn’t get compensated—often isn’t getting done. Quite candidly it’s falling on women and people of color, who feel so deeply about making changes in their organizations that they take it on—even though it’s not rewarded or recognized.”

Flexible Schedules Should Include Boundaries

The report finds that 42% of women report being burned out, versus 32% last year. One in three women has considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce in the past year, compared to one in four women who were considering this last year.

“A very positive step in the right direction is that employees don’t feel like they’re being penalized for that flexibility, such as missing out on a raise or a promotion,” says Thomas. “On the other hand, we do see that employees feel like there is a need to be always on; there’s a 24/7 nature to work. The last mile of flexibility is also creating more explicit boundaries. For example, less than one third of employees have been told by their company that they’re not expected to respond to non-urgent requests outside of working hours.”

Educate Employees About What Real Allyship Looks Like

Despite an increased focus on DEI within companies, the experiences of women of color have not improved in the last few years, and they’re more likely to experience microaggressions than white women. For example, 18% of Black women, 13% of Latinas, and 11% of Asian women hear surprise at their language skills or other abilities, compared to just 5% of white women.

“Women of color are still far more likely than white women to be on the receiving end of respectful and othering behavior,” says Thomas. “The workplace is still less hospitable to women of color. Another takeaway is that, as we’re talking about this moment of a real focus on racial equity, why are white employees not showing up as better allies?”

The report finds there is a disconnect between what white employees see as important allyship steps and what women of color say makes the biggest difference: 44% of women of color say advocating for new opportunities for them is one of the most meaningful allyship actions, while just 28% of white employees say this—and there is a similar disconnect when it comes to mentorship and sponsorship.

“It was interesting that white employees are mostly focusing on self-education and more in-the-moment actions,” says Thomas. “Women of color are understandably saying, ‘We want you to focus on what’s actually going to really move the dial for us, and that’s the hard work of advocating for us by showing up as mentors and sponsors.’ When you take that gap between intent and action, and couple the gap with the disconnect of what women of color are saying will be most impactful and what white employees are focused on, it’s clear there is a need for a lot more education around what good allyship looks like.”

Culture Change Is Not A “One And Done”

There are no easy fixes for changing workplace culture; it requires ongoing investment and a growth mindset. With racism costing $16 trillion to the U.S GDP according to a Citigroup study, companies can’t afford to ignore it. 

“Organizations need to be taking an intersectional approach, from tracking representation data  to tracking the outcome of hiring and promotions, and looking at all of those metrics by gender, race and ethnicity,” says Thomas.  “What happens if they don’t is that women of color can inadvertently go overlooked. If you don’t even see them in your pipeline, how are you going to make improvements and be sure that they’re advancing equitably? The other big thing is when we find women of color are having a worse day-to-day experience, that means you have to change your culture. Employees at all levels need to be part of the solution and agents for good. That means companies need to make sure that employees are really aware of inequities in their workplace and double down on employee education. A once-a-year training does not move culture; it needs to be ongoing and coupled with finding a way to integrate it into the day to day.”

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