Bloomberg Law
Dec. 17, 2020, 9:01 AM

Implementing Lasting Changes for Gender Equality in the Workplace

Julie Fink
Julie Fink
Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP
Rachel Tuchman
Rachel Tuchman
Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP

Countless studies, articles, and reports have shed light on the fact that the U.S. economy has been acutely dismal for American women during the Covid-19 crisis and resulting economic downturn, which began in February.

In fact, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women have lost jobs at a significantly higher rate than men, the first such occurrence since the government began tracking these numbers in 1964. Members of our firm discussed this exact phenomenon in an Insight in September.

With news of effective vaccines coming to the rescue soon, however, companies should not miss this opportunity to reflect on why workplaces had such a difficult time retaining women during the pandemic, and what can be done now to avoid this gender equality crisis in the future.

The expanding gender gap is first explained by the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on jobs and occupations that tend to employ more women, including in the restaurant, child care, and service-industry sectors. But studies also show that even prior to the pandemic, working mothers were already shouldering the majority of family caregiving responsibilities.

Thus, the disruptions to child care and schools affected working mothers in uniquely dramatic ways, and women were far more likely than their male counterparts to reduce their hours or leave their jobs entirely in response.

While there can be no doubt that such a phenomenon calls for fundamental shifts in child care policies nationally, as well as perhaps a moment of introspection in many of our own homes to consider whether caregiving roles are equitably divided—companies also have a role in ensuring women do not ever have to choose between their careers or their families again.

Below are three concrete lessons from Covid-19 that workplaces can and should take with them into the future, regardless of whether we ever find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic again.

Be Flexible

For many places of employment, including in our own legal profession, employers have learned that much of the work that was previously deemed necessary to do in the office could be accomplished at home. With that realization, employers are chucking the practice of face time for the sake of face time.

Although we are all looking forward to a more regular return to our offices, employers can maintain, even without a global pandemic raging in the background, flexible work arrangements for certain employees. Simply put, we have learned that employees can be productive and trusted to accomplish their jobs while also taking care of the needs of their families.

Provide Gender-Neutral Parental Leave Policies

One way to more permanently shatter the norm that women shoulder the bulk of caregiving responsibilities is to set the tone from the top that gender has nothing to do with parenting. Gender-neutral approaches to parental leave normalize the sharing of caring and household responsibilities and are also essential for the redistribution of unpaid care.

We also suggest dispensing with policies that differentiate the amount of time off between a child’s “primary” and “secondary” caregiver. Although these policies are gender-neutral on their face, the terms far too often become proxies for gender. Moreover, primary/secondary policies impose a model of child care that simply doesn’t align with how many families hope to parent.

Workplaces also play an active role in encouraging the equal distribution of care labor at home, and senior male employers can model gender equity by taking their full parental leaves and openly and actively discussing their role as parents at home.

According to a study from the national paid-leave advocacy group PL+US, while most fathers intend on taking some leave from work, 33% hold a strong fear that their career will be damaged when they do. As a result, less than half of all new fathers actually end up taking leave.

Encourage all parents to take their full leave, and remind everyone that there will be no recognition or reward for not taking it.

Solicit Feedback

Since the start of the pandemic, many employers have taken more proactive steps to ask their employees directly what they need to be successful during this crisis. This practice and dialogue should continue past the pandemic, and workplaces should be set up such that there are multiple avenues to not just receive, but also to deliver feedback to management about workplace structures, arrangements, and best practices.

As we have learned at our own firm in having these conversations with attorneys and staff, every employee’s situation is unique and one working parent’s struggle may not mirror someone else’s.

We also encourage companies to develop anonymous modes of communication, including the regular implementation of culture surveys and anonymous question and answer forums. To the extent that employers can develop individualized and tailored approaches to retain talent, we believe simply asking what their employees need can be an obvious but woefully underutilized first step.

It is our sincere hope that this nation gets out of this crisis soon. But we also encourage companies to take this moment to implement lasting policy and cultural changes so that women never have to face choosing between their careers or their families.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Julie Fink is the managing partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. She leads an active commercial and public interest litigation practice and oversees all aspects of the firm’s management, growth, and strategic planning. As one of the youngest managing (and named) partners at a major law firm, she has been recognized for her “revolutionary” approach to firm operations and her strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,.

Rachel Tuchman is an attorney at Kaplan Hecker & Fink and specializes in gender discrimination matters. She has worked on numerous high-profile matters in the #TimesUp sphere, including representing an accuser coming forward about former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Melanie Kohler, the woman sued by Hollywood producer Brett Ratner for sharing her #MeToo story on social media.