Best practices for reviving the female workforce post COVID-19

APR 25, 2021

We see the men, but do you see the women? Not a question anyone of us should be asking at the start of 2021 but yet here we are – still asking it. One of the most striking outcomes of economic liberalization in the region was the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce.

Yet, it was not just the growth of women joining the workforce over the last couple of decades that has been impressive, it was the mindset change that was even more notable. As the focus on women’s education grew and domestic incomes began increasing, women began making employment decisions for themselves, started pursuing careers, and slowly their work became part of their identity. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic has not been good to working women and has set them back at work. COVID-19 blurred the lines between personal and professional lives, especially for women. This has meant finding a new balance of working from home alongside children and spouses. This spending of increased time on childcare and family caregiving has led to a dramatic increase in stress levels. The case for accelerating the process to bring these women back into the productive mainstream and narrowing the gender gap in relation to economic activities has never been greater. 

The  four countries with the highest percentage of female workers are, perhaps not surprisingly, all part of the EU and interestingly, border each other – Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.  Although the gender gap has narrowed significantly in Western countries, for the region, even without taking the COVID-led disparities into account, much work still needs to be done. 

Why is diversity important? For a nation to be competitive on the global stage, it needs to know how to make use of its female talent pool – representing, give or take, half of the population. While more women have entered the workforce, there are still plenty of inroads to be made, particularly in the upper echelons. While the proportion of women who have climbed the corporate ladder and made it to board of director status varies greatly among countries, their numbers still remain extremely low. 

According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), just around 18% of firms globally are led by women. Statistics specific to India and other emerging economies are even more disheartening. Female representation in India is only at 13%, while it is 8% in Brazil, and 9.5% in the Middle East. Take the financial services sector as an example — you see women missing across levels. At the customer end, there are too few women depositors and borrowers, and at the institutional end, too few board members and regulators. According to the IMF, women account for less than two percent of financial institutions’ chief executive officers and less than 20% of executive board members.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) have become more than just HR checklist items; they’ve grown into a cultural phenomenon that – when executed correctly – have a direct effect on the bottom line. These days, it is more crucial than ever to ensure that the workplace not only accepts but also embraces this practice. This is especially true in India, where D&I management is of particular importance. 

With the millennial segment growing within the workforce – and expected to reach three-fourths of the total global population by 2025 – building a diverse team is not a choice but a business necessity. 

IMA recently published a helpful resource called the Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit, which can serve as a guide for any employee or executive who wants to jumpstart a D&I initiative within their own organization. The toolkit outlines five key approaches that IMA members have used to measurably increase diversity:

  • Lead from the top

D&I needs to be exemplified throughout the company, starting from the top. It requires a culture that rewards a willingness to course correct. CEOs, board members, D&I committee heads, and other senior leaders need to set the tone on D&I and lead by example. The same goes for transforming individual departments; for the finance function, the tone must be set by the CFO. 

  • Establishing accountability

D&I initiatives shouldn’t be delegated to a committee or entry-level employee, as accountability will fall by the wayside. Instead, assign a senior- level executive to oversee D&I initiatives, one who will be held directly accountable for progress. The role will be responsible to develop new resources to help employees and members, implement D&I strategies, and monitor performance in this area.

  • Quantify D&I 

It is crucial that each organization clarify and measure what goals are involved in making progress on D&I, including employee statistics and whatever other initiatives are launched. This is an area where finance and accounting professionals, under the leadership of the CFO, can play a key role.

  • Communicate initiatives, goals, and successes

Make D&I part of organizational communications across platforms, whether it is in annual reports, employee communications, or marketing materials. Companies that disclose more quantitative data and represent employees in their marketing of D&I have more credibility.

  • Build a diverse leadership pipeline

Create a diverse leadership pipeline within the industry or organization. During the recruitment or internal promotions process, showcase a diverse leadership representation through succession planning and job postings on sites that attract diverse candidates. Analyze senior level and professional roles of the organization (front line, managers, and C-suite) as well as local demographic trends as a basis for forecasting future D&I planning for the organization.

To yield successful outcomes, an organization’s journey with D&I is a continuum that must be considered as an organic evolutionary journey that is monitored and assessed periodically. Any transformation or commitment the organization makes with diversity and inclusion is a great investment to ensure that its workforce meets the needs of a diverse population of employees and other stakeholders. Such crucial steps will eventually become the building blocks for creating and nurturing an inclusive workplace where talent thrives and in turn, organizations thrive too.