Earlier in the pandemic, I interviewed Dr. Ruth Gotian, the chief learning officer at Weill Cornell Medicine, about women’s career goals. More specifically, some new data my company, InHerSight, had collected: In summer 2020, almost half of women survey respondents told us the pandemic had delayed their career progress.
I asked Gotian, who studies elite high achievers, what women could do to feel successful during this time, even if their five- or 10-year plan had been thrown off course. Her advice was simple: Change the goal.
With the September release of the McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org annual Women in the Workplace report, it’s clear the remaining women in the workforce (yes, remaining) have reached yet another tension point. In the year-plus since Gotian issued that sage advice, the report says that the number of women considering changing or leaving their jobs has jumped from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3. Because all of our circumstances have changed substantially, pre-pandemic career goals don’t work—maybe early pandemic career goals don’t work now, either—and we’re seeing that reflected in the 1.8 million women who’ve dropped out of the workforce since March 2020 and the ones considering major shifts, such as career changes, now.
Early 2020 me would have told companies that the key to retaining women through this time is work-life integration—and I wouldn’t have been wrong. Flexibility is the number one thing women tell my company they want from their employers right now. Institute flexible work hours, focus on deliverables versus time in the seat and encourage employees to take time off, I would have advised because that will help you retain demographics like working moms, who are carrying our country on their backs, as they always do. Even if you can’t change who does the dishes at home, that flexibility will give women room to breathe and encourage them to stay.
But 18 months into a global health crisis that has radically altered the way I view my own career and life, and I feel compelled to tell employers exactly what Gotian told me: Change the goal.
I think it’s easy when a report like McKinsey’s is released to hyperfocus on turnover and retention and, from a progress standpoint, the fate of women’s advancement as a whole. It becomes an albatross draped around a LinkedIn influencer’s neck.
Those business-centric worries are also a huge distraction from what really matters, which is the women themselves. When you see in that same report that 42% of women are burned out—up 10 percentage points since last year—the concern at this point shouldn’t be, How can we keep women’s careers on track?, but How can we get women back on track? It’s not How do we keep women working at our company?, but How can we build a culture that prioritizes the person over everything—deadlines, metrics, end-of-year goals, all of it?
Burnout sucks. You feel sad, irritable, unmotivated. It’s hopelessness on top of what already seems like a hopeless reality. It’s logging on every day, and thinking, Am I really going to respond to emails while the world is, sometimes literally, burning? It can be both work-related and not related to paid work at all, which is something I think we often get wrong when we discuss burnout and is an important distinction to make amid ongoing, multifaceted crises. Burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion due to prolonged stress, and it’s safe to say, for many of us and regardless of our career level or workload, this is the most stressful time of our lives.
I don’t have a grand solution for reigniting the fire in working women because I can’t speak for all women, but I do have one last trick up my sleeve.
This summer, my company asked women in another survey whether they’ve felt heard by their friends, family, and employer in the past six months. Family and friends knocked listening skills out of the park, but of the more than 3,000 participants, nearly half responded negatively where their company was concerned. That’s right, half of women don’t feel heard at work.
Listening might seem elementary in times like these, but it’s actually crucial to employee satisfaction. Active, open-minded, and actionable listening motivates, strengthens relationships, offers release and builds trust, and when listening isn’t prioritized, or it’s done superficially (meaning it’s distracted, lacks follow-through, or rejects the person’s experience), it speaks volumes of a company or team’s culture—namely that they don’t care about their people.
Instead of panicking at the thought of another mass exit among women, which could happen and is somewhat beyond your control at this point, now is a good time to create better and more productive listening channels, either to support the employees you currently have or the ones you’ll hire in the months to come. Start Slack groups dedicated to working parents, singles living alone during the pandemic, or other demographics with shared experiences. Host all-hands meetings or town hall discussions that focus on non-business news, especially when communities experience acts of racism or violence. Encourage leaders and managers to talk to employees about what’s happening in the world and how it might be affecting them. Decentralize work in coffee chats and 1:1s, and instead hold space for people by learning about their lives, their interests, and their frustrations.
And in terms of using listening to move women’s careers forward again? I’ll return to the advice Gotian gave me in 2020. Change the goal so women can achieve something, even if it’s small or short-term, or personal. Plan on goal-setting for 2022 using questions that make the narrative more about her and less about work, because the work will follow. Ask women, Gotian said, “What is it they love about their new reality? What brings them energy? What depletes them? What really sapped all the energy from them?” Then, forge a new and more malleable path knowing full well that this plan might not work out either.
Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight.