On February 10, Path Forward CEO Tami Forman joined a panel of fellow career leaders for the first session of Women in the Workplace, a JFF Action Collaborative series organized by chair Gayatri Agnew, Path Forward Board Member and Sr. Director and Head of Accessibility for the Center of Excellence at Walmart. The three-part series welcomes corporate leaders to listen, learn, and engage on the issues facing working women, and how they can make changes within their own companies to retain and support women. Tami took part in the panel conversation with Sarah Gitlin, Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company, and Jocelyn Frye, President of the National Partnership of Women and Families.
McKinsey and Company has compiled an annual Women in the Workplace report since 2015, and Sarah summed up the general trends they’ve been noticing. According to her, while there is still a lot of progress to be made, “at every level of seniority, we’ve seen an uptick in women’s representation.” However, she noted that “broken rungs” on women’s career ladders exist – especially for women of color, who are given substantially fewer opportunities for advancement. She encouraged companies to analyze the experiences of their employees to ensure that equity in professional support exists along the intersection of gender and race.
Jocelyn expanded on the challenges women of color, in particular, face. Her organization works to ensure that everyone has access to the relevant protections necessary to advance and be successful in the workforce, and she noted that lower-paid, frontline workers, who are disproportionately women, and women of color, are kept out of the conversations on supporting women in the workforce. “Workers themselves are not feeling the support that they need…They’re key to the economic security of their families…[they] do not have the economic resources to leave their job.”
For Tami, the notion that leaving the workforce is a choice all women can freely make, is an oft-cited and frustrating misconception. “This narrative around choice – that women choose to leave the workforce, to focus on their children…it hurts the women who would like to stay in the workforce, but who get forced into that choice, and the women who don’t have a choice and have to stay in the workforce…there’s [a lack] of policies and corporate practices that would help all women, because we have coded women’s, particularly white women’s, work as a kind of ‘nice to have’…when we don’t give women the opportunities that they have the potential to achieve, it’s a way of pushing them out.”
When women want to come back, they’re often frustrated by a lack of opportunity – they have valuable experience from their previous career, they gained skills while caring for children or family members that are relevant to the professional world. But they are often not taken seriously by employers, and their commitment to their career is questioned. “Not only do we push women out of the workforce by not having the policies that keep them in, making their lives more stressful, but we don’t want to get them back because we think, well, they chose their family, so how committed are they going to be?”
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated women’s struggles to achieve work-life balance. As Sarah reported, a McKinsey & Company study found that 40% of women and 50% of women managers reported significant burnout in the past two years. Tami summed up the challenges that caregiving women are currently facing: “caregivers are frustrated, women are frustrated, and they’re tired of doing work for free.”
Returnships are extremely effective in providing a path for women to return to the paid workforce. The key to their success, according to Tami, is that they not only provide support for participants, but give managers a way to change the culture of hiring within their teams. “Managers are under tremendous stress…and are going to do the thing that is easiest for them…which is to hire someone who is already doing that job – better yet if it’s someone they know,” she explained. “Returnships create a structure and a program – not just for the participants, but for the recruiters and managers, to change that culture…returnships make everyone stop and say, wait a minute. Let’s think about what skills we actually need, let’s think about how people can come from different backgrounds and perspectives, and the value they can bring.”
Path Forward returnships are incredibly successful: around 80% of participants are converted into full-time employees at the companies where they completed their returnships. And, according to Tami, this success “is not because we’re magic…it’s because [these returning women] are amazing, and they need to be given the opportunity to show that.”