The Pandemic Is Pushing Women, People of Color Out of Their Careers

Here's What Organizations Should Do About It.

Oct 01, 2020
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Just weeks into the pandemic, Nicole M. Coomber began noticing a worrying trend. Upwardly mobile professionals across her social media networks were opting to step back from their careers, overwhelmed by the new demands of their work lives and home lives.

The vast majority of them, she noted, were women and people of color. Their exit could pose a major setback for organizations as they seek to improve diversity, equity and inclusion among their executive ranks and corporate boards.

“From that organizational perspective,” Coomber said, “you have to be thinking about mitigation strategies. What can be done, right now, to mitigate this?”

Coomber is the assistant dean of the Full-Time MBA program and an associate clinical professor of management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. At home, she juggles childcare responsibilities too, as the mom to four young sons.

Mothers often engage in “covering” in the workplace, downplaying or hiding their childcare responsibilities. “Professionalism is more difficult to maintain when our homes are now the video backdrops for our work,” says Coomber. If children come into the frame, it can upend the professional images we have worked so hard to create. These challenges affect Black working mothers disproportionately, because Black employees are judged more harshly when using a traditionally white, upper middle class definition of “professionalism.”

This year’s Women in the Workforce report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, finds that about 1 in 5 mothers are considering dropping out of the workforce, at least temporarily, compared to 1 in 10 fathers. Black women are even more likely to consider dropping out or stepping back from their careers, citing pandemic concerns as a reason.

U.S. Labor Department data show that women make up a disproportionate share of the 3.7 million Americans who have dropped out of the workforce since the pandemic. Women accounted for 47% of the workforce in March, but they make up 54% of those who have exited the workforce.

“I went into my social feed and realized that five women I personally know had decided to leave their jobs. And when I told that to other people, everyone said they did too. And that’s just too many women leaving the workforce, and often at critical points in their careers,” she said.

That’s why organizations must recognize the challenges their employees are facing, and work harder to offer the support that’s needed.

For some employees, an opportunity to work part-time for six months or a year could make the difference between holding onto a career, or letting it go.

It’s by no means a perfect solution, Coomber said, admitting “I’m not a big fan of going part time.” Too often, women who adopt a 20-hour-a-week schedule end up working 35 or 40 hours anyway, but for far less pay.

But in a time of COVID-19, adopting a part-time schedule makes some sense, she said. It allows employees to maintain their place in the workforce, avoid a gap on their resume, and can help keep their career “more or less” on track. “When things, hopefully, go back to normal, you may be able to pick up steam and pick up where you left off in your professional development,” she said.

Not being a fan of the part-time option, Coomber said, she advises people to max out their vacation and personal leave allocations before reducing their hours. These days she is also recommending that people explore potential leave options under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act).

She advises managers to check in on their employees regularly, and offer support wherever possible. “There are people in your organization who are going to be vulnerable right now, and if you don’t take a stand and make them feel seen, they could walk away,” she said.

That means losing critical institutional knowledge and incurring the kinds of expenses and productivity setbacks that are so often incurred amid job vacancies and the new hire onboarding process, but it also means potentially losing women, Black, Indigenous and people of color who may have been in the pipeline for future top executive positions. The costs of a talent exodus can be vast and take organizations years to overcome.

“As a company, if you have certain women and people of color that you have been cultivating for top jobs, you need to think strategically right now. You need to loop in your chief people officer and think about how you are going to support your employees and engage in succession planning,” she said. “When you have talent working for you, you need to make sure they’re getting what they need. My bet is, in many cases, they are not.”

Speaking on a Zoom call with her children’s voices in the background, Coomber said her boss has checked in on her a few times in the past six months. “It means a lot,” she said. “I feel like I could go to her if I had to do something, if I was feeling like I needed to take time off or make some kind of change.”

That’s what all leaders should be doing, she said. “You want people to know that if they do face challenges, all is not lost.”

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About the Expert(s)

Nicole M. Coomber

Nicole Coomber is on the faculty in the Management & Organization area at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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