Perspectives: Supporting Women in the Workplace During the Pandemic

By Mary Smith, BCBA, LBA
Executive Director, WEAP

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has directly claimed 2.6 million lives worldwide, with roughly 20 percent, or 525,000, of the departed living in the United States. Indirectly, the cost of and on lives is vast—beyond vast, actually—and we are all facing this vastness together, now and for future generations.

The impact of COVID-19 on the labor market has also been dramatic. According to studies, and to what I’ve witnessed firsthand as the executive director of WEAP, a part of LEARN Behavioral, this impact has been greater on women than men. Consider, for example, that there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than there were in October 2019. Why?

Largely, it’s that the occupations and industries most affected by the pandemic—leisure and hospitality, education and healthcare, and wholesale and retail—have a high proportion of female workers. Another reason is the closure of daycares and schools, leading to increased caregiving responsibilities. Research indicates that women took on a disproportionate amount of these responsibilities, compared to men. Decisions needed to be made regarding the children and elderly who needed caring for, and millions of working women left their positions.

Time away from the workplace can result in missed opportunities that range from training and tuition reimbursement to participation in initiatives, pay increases, and promotions. Despite the fact that more women than men now graduate from college, women are the ones moving out of the workforce, potentially leading to an entire generation of women being unable to progress to leadership positions in their chosen careers as readily as men.

Why is this vacuum of women leadership in business a big issue for society? A recent analysis by authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, as published in an article for Harvard Business Review, finds that women scored higher than men in several key leadership skills, including taking initiative, driving results, developing others, inspiring and motivating others, and displaying high integrity and honesty—among other skills. So, empathy and multi-tasking, which women have, for centuries, been stereotyped as having in higher degrees, are not the only talents women bring to the table. It turns out women bring an abundance of skills. If women lose their seat at the table as a result of COVID, a tremendous opportunity for continued gains by women will be lost.

Mary Smith, BCBA, LBA - Executive Director, WEAP
Mary Smith, BCBA, LBA – Executive Director, WEAP

In my own field, applied behavior analysis (ABA), recent data reports that more than 85 percent of licensed practitioners are female. Likewise, a study by Melissa Nosik and her colleagues indicates that over the past few decades, women in ABA have made substantial career progress, transforming the field from one in which men hold more leadership positions to one predominantly led by women. Despite this progress, Nosik identifies career milestones, like becoming a fellow of the Association of Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) or receiving late career awards, underrepresented by women. If women are not given the flexibility to continue to advance into leadership positions, we risk this lack of progress and representation continuing.

As a female leader in the field of ABA, I have a significant responsibility to maintain a flexible work environment for every staff member, 85 percent of whom are women (and many of those who are working mothers). One benefit of COVID-19 that has made this easier is the increasing acceptance of telehealth by health plans. Now, 90 percent of insurance companies fund telehealth treatment and consultation—a move that has been vital for the children and families we serve, in addition to the clinicians who can work from home and be more flexible with their time.

In my role, I strive to ensure that all women and men alike are comfortable being flexible with their working hours. I want them to know, for instance, that they’re supported when they need to change their schedule to attend to care-giving needs. Additionally, I initiate conversations about leadership to ensure that my team consider it. As Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.”

I am confident that LEARN takes female leadership seriously. Here, 75 percent of our senior leadership team are women, including the recent promotions of Hanna Rue to Chief Clinical Officer and Sabrina Daneshvar to Senior Vice President. Other opportunities helping women involve the introduction of sick pay for part-time workers, the majority of whom are women; the many cross-organization task groups available for people to practice leadership skills; the accepted flexibility of time management to meet care-giving needs; and the organization’s initiative to purchase from and do business with female-owned vendors and businesses. These decisions and actions, in addition to others, make me proud to work for and help lead an organization committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion—and to women.