Promoting women and diversity in the post-COVID-19 workplace

MBA Women in Business Club holds 6th annual conference

February 9, 2021

If COVID-19 has served to expose the fault lines in progress toward gender equality in the workplace, it also presents the opportunity to rethink working in ways that foster greater inclusion.

IESE’s MBA Women in Business Club held its annual conference recently, discussing a wide range of issues facing women in the workplace. Speakers included Ibukun Awosika, Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and member of IESE’s International Advisory Board; Carlota Pi, founder and executive president of Spain’s HolaLuz; Sabine Mueller, CEO of DHL Consulting; and Corrida Yokley, Senior Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Business Parter of Amazon EU.

Throughout the day of online panels and workshops, speakers and participants discussed inclusion policies, the benefits of balanced teams, how men can support women in their careers, tools for empowering women and much more.

As in just about everything over the past year, COVID-19 served as an unsettling backdrop to the discussions. McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace report for 2020 warned that working women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Women are more likely than men to have lost their jobs; have shouldered an ever-greater burden at home during lockdowns; have lost support systems such as school and childcare that made work possible; and are considering downshifting in their careers or leaving the workplace altogether, McKinsey noted.

This combination of factors, McKinsey said, constitutes an “emergency” for corporations. “Companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity,” the report said.

“One thing that Covid has put on top of the table is that work and life are not two different things,” said Prof. Mireia Las Heras, who has researched work-life balance extensively. “We are one person.”

“We were fooling ourselves in recent years because there were so many advances in the workplace,” said Karolina Korth, Chief Digitalization Officer at Siemens Mobility. “But we overlooked that women continued to do so many unpaid jobs.”

Opportunity for change

At the same time, the radically different working landscape presents an opportunity, since companies have the chance to introduce the kind of flexible arrangements and more empathetic leadership that many women have been advocating for for years.

To make that work, there must be a shift in mentality among companies, teams and women themselves, requiring new forms of communication and support. Working from home demands a different approach to time management — as well as particular resolve to prevent the workday from expanding to burnout-inducing levels.

“It’s about setting boundaries for yourself,” said Katie Fallone, Director of Product Marketing and Customer Operations at e-learning company Voxy.

Many women worry about what their bosses or colleagues will say if they aren’t available 24/7, or if they want to carve out time for their family, their friends or themselves.  “We don’t speak up at work because we’re afraid we might be judged,” said Rebeca Kung of McKinsey. But it’s necessary to set limits, “and be brave about that too.”

“And those boundaries should be public,” said Marta Sánchez, Head of Digital Transformation at Vodafone in the UK, stressing the need to make it clear when you’ll be available to answer emails, join calls, sit in on meetings, etc.

For Siemen’s Korth, that change is all about incorporating compassion into the workplace in a more intentional way. “We need to be a little more compassionate with our colleagues and our environment, and also with ourselves,” she said.

Katrina Walker’s CodeOp, which teaches coding to women, has experienced the multiple crosswinds of the pandemic. Students have faced more uncertainty in the workplace, and more pressures at home; for households where there is only one computer available, mothers defer to children doing online schooling. And as an entrepreneur, women-founded startups saw funding shrink disproportionately – and already women were receiving a smaller portion of the financing pie than men.

But at the same time, the boom in online learning opened up new geographies and greater flexibility; virtual courses can also be easier for women juggling multiple responsibilities to manage.

All of which highlights that issues such as increasing diversity in the workplace have no single answer. “We have to recognize that it’s not an easy problem to solve, and will require diverse solutions,” Walker said.