Finding our way back

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Sarah McComb, co-founder and president of the Women’s Tech Forum – a non-profit focused on the advancement and promotion of women in the cloud, data centre and telecom space – reflects on the pandemic’s effect on women and how we can move forward

2020 was rough. While our cloud and telecom industry has come through largely okay – and in many cases booming more than ever – we cannot ignore that one of the most distressing aspects of the year was the major setback and regression of women’s professional development across all rungs of the ladder.

American women lost more than five million jobs in 2020. Women – especially women of colour – were more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. In December 2020, 140,000 jobs were lost in the US and 100% of them were held by women.

In very large and real ways, the ground that had been gained in the name of parity over the last five years had been wiped out. This is leading to stifled careers, uncertain financial stability and overall lack of advancement.

In 2020, we learned to work from home but we never left work. This year was not a vacation. Many of us, especially women, lost whatever tenuous balance we previously had between life and work.

Women undertook the lion’s share of child rearing, home schooling, parent caring and housework, with the lines separating work from home blurring on a daily basis. According to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report, this “always on” mentality has led to burnout and exodus, with one in four women considering downshifting or leaving the workforce altogether.

Embracing the benefits of remote work

We have already seen our industry shift its approach on the “return to office” model and this is good progress. Companies that initially insisted on returning to 100% in-office capacity quickly reassessed this approach following critique and backlash. Gone are the days of relying on an office to get work done.

This glorious thing we all build and depend on, called the internet, made that possible.

Companies need to lean in to this flexibility. Work must be sustainable with a realistic approach to goals and productivity. Recognising non-traditional working methods – such as 100% remote work or a hybrid approach – can not only benefit their bottom lines but also open doors to candidates that previously may not have been considered based on location or work hour limitations.

This is a great opportunity for diversity and inclusion efforts. There is a unique opportunity at our fingertips to create more flexible, inclusive and equitable workplaces.

Who comes next?

In recognising that our previous “normal” is not something we should return to, we applaud the stated efforts of companies to improve the hiring and promotion of women and people of colour – but also challenge that this is not enough.

According to the US census, women make up only 15% in the computer engineering occupations of STEM. Overall, women comprise 47% of the US workforce but only 25% of tech roles.

Progress in STEM has come a long way since the 1970s but in terms of hiring and promoting, many managers still look for a mirror of their own traits and traditional backgrounds rather than looking outside the box.

Here is an opportunity to bring into your organisations women and people of colour who may not have the perfect resume but can be trained and learn from experience.

Return-to-work programmes for those who have taken a pause in their careers, looking at complementary industries, and aggressively supporting STEM in university programmes are just a few of the places to start.

And considering the world we have all just lived through, a recognition of bias and taking steps in minimising it is crucial. When you are lining up employees for promotions, do you unconsciously (or consciously) think that women on the list are less committed to your organisation because children could be heard in the background during calls or because most of her emails were sent outside of the standard nine-to-five?

While shifting to a more flexible work environment that will suit more people equally, we also have to shift our judgements of how and when work is done to avoid bias and make sure men and women are being treated fairly.

Ultimately, it is essential that companies centre women and people of colour in their hiring and promotion practices. We should not be a check box at the bottom of a list of ‘nice to haves’, or seen as simply a way to fill a diversity quota.

If you keep looking for unicorns, you will miss the herd of thoroughbreds right in front of you.