COVID-19 crushed women’s progress in the workforce. Five steps to turn it around.

What an irony. International Women’s Day, yesterday (March 8th), coincided with the anniversary of the onset of COVID19, a health disaster that brought the international economy to its knees and resulted in a tempestuous year for women in the workforce. The shutting-down of day cares and move to on-line learning has further exacerbated the pressure and costs for working mothers.

Bringing women back into the workforce is critical for the “V-shaped” recovery. The transition to remote work, if it becomes institutionalized, could allow women to juggle work and family life better.

Millions of women (2.3 million in the US) have lost their jobs or left the workforce, 500,000 more than men. Women’s participation in the labor force has slipped to 57%, the lowest it has been since 1988, according to an analysis of government data by the National Women’s Law Center. The COVID19 recession or She-cession has hit women harder because they have been more often found in lower-income service and retail jobs that vanished with the pandemic.

Among mothers with children younger than 13 years old, labor-force participation declined 3.4 percentage points between February and October of last year while dropping 1.4 points for prime-age fathers, according to an analysis by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The vaccination of the workforce and eventual reopening of the economy, especially retail shops, restaurants, and the service industry will help. Meanwhile in the economy’s professional and engineering sectors that allowed workers to go remote, other measures are required to enable women to have employment parity with men.

We know from empirical research that organizations that have closer parity of women in the board room, management, and in the workforce (and people of color as well) fare better financially than companies that do not.

The empirical evidence from McKinsey and others, such as economists at MIT and George Washington, shows that having women and people of color on boards, in leadership positions, and more diverse workforces drive improved revenue and profitability. In their latest report, released in May 2020, and with research from 2019, before the pandemic, the McKinsey authors write:

“In 2019, top quartile [financially performing] companies outperformed those in the fourth quarter by 36 percent in profitability, slightly up from 33 percent in 2017 and 35 percent in 2014. As previously found, the likelihood of higher performance continues to be higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender.”

But the overall progress on diversity and inclusion was stalling and uneven before the pandemic, slipping backwards in some companies and accelerating in others. Again, McKinsey’s authors describe the situation:

“By following the trajectories of hundreds of companies in our data set since 2014, we find that the overall slow growth in diversity often observed in fact masks a growing polarization among these organizations. While most have made little progress, are stalled or even slipping backward, some are making impressive gains in diversity, particularly in executive teams. We show that these diversity winners are adopting systematic, business-led approaches to inclusion and diversity (I&D).”

The chart below by McKinsey illustrates its findings on those companies making progress with executive diversity, those falling behind, and those “resting on their laurels.”


Here are five steps your company can take to renew your commitment to diversity and inclusion and drive real change.

First, assess your own unconscious bias and resolve to change it.

We all have biases. Admitting to them does not make you a bigot or sexist. The actions of bigots and sexists are conscious and deliberate.

Unconscious bias is an attitude or stereotype that affects an individual’s understanding, behavior, and decision-making without the individual consciously realizing it, most of the time. Scientists have observed such biases using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. Bernard J Luskin, Ed D., LMFT, “MRIs Reveal Unconscious Biases in the Brain: Shining a Light on an Elephant in the Room,” Psychology Today (April 7, 2016). Psychologists now recognize unconscious bias as real and measurable. It is demonstrated by all of us, despite our most altruistic and equitable intentions.[i]

Executives can consider their own unconscious biases during a time of deep reflection or through a facilitated group discussion, and there is a scientifically developed test for it, the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or are unable to report. More than six million people have taken the IAT since 1998. Its purpose is to create awareness of unconscious bias and then enable the person to manage their implicit biases better.[ii]  Awareness is one of the first steps to combat unconscious bias. Training is also effective.

Second, diversity begins with values, a long-term commitment, and aligning diversity initiatives to your organization’s purpose and business strategies.

History has taught us that companies can make firm commitments to diversity only to turn to another priority the next year and lose focus. When the company has aligned its focus on diversity to its purpose and its strategies, there is a higher probability that its diversity effort will be long-lasting and drive financial results.

Third, embrace remote work and the hybrid workforce.

I implemented a remote work environment and hybrid workforce with a team of executives in Medtronic in Santa Rosa CA in 2012. Not only was it incredibly successful in allowing women to have more control over their work and life balance, but it also saved the business two million dollars a year in reduced real estate costs by getting out of two facility leases. We increased the productivity of remote workers by 22 percent and in-office workers by about 25 minutes a day through redesigning the office. We were also able to recruit and retain employees (men and women). The new system allowed us to substantially reduce greenhouse gases by lowering the number of employees commuting every day to work.

We learned how to address many of the questions employers ask today, such as which jobs are and are not ideal for remote work? How does remote work change the role of leaders? What are the team operating norms essential for successful remote work? What is the new role of the office in an environment when roughly 40 percent of the workforce will be working from home two to four days a week? And how to reduce employee burnout from over working.

To learn more about how to make your 2020 rush to remote work a permanent part of your work experience and how to apply it to your office environment, I invite you to read my most recent article on the topic.

Fourth, examine your company job posts to see if it drives away female applicants. (Most do!)

Your job postings may be your worst nightmare, scaring off female job applicants with jargon and needless clutter. If your job posting is more than 250 words and exhibits  tones of gender bias, it is time for an overhaul.

The words you select in a job posting can drive away female job applicants, which is a disaster if you are trying to diversity your workforce. Academics have known for years that men and women respond differently to various phrases in job postings. The Gaucher-Frey-Kay study found that women tended not to apply for these jobs in statistically significant numbers when male dominated words were used. Moreover, they had a negative view of the company’s work culture and believed they wouldn’t feel like they belonged there.

Conversely, when female-themed words are used, the number of female applicants significantly rose. Furthermore, male applicants do not drop off. Men applying in equal proportion to job postings with male-themed versus female-themed words. The obvious lesson here is that if you want to improve the number of women applying for your job postings, use female-themed words to attract women. These words will not deter men from applying to the same jobs.

To learn more about how to change job postings and gender-coded words and attract more female job applicants without driving away males, read my most recent article on the topic.

Fifth, it is time to check everyone’s first impressions while looking at resumes and interviewing.

Research dating back 65 years shows that first impressions in the initial four minutes of an interview play a dominant role in shaping an interviewer’s decision, establishing a bias that colors all subsequent interviewer-interviewee interaction. In many ways, the interview is a search for negative information, and just one unfavorable impression was followed by a rejection decision 90 percent of the time.[iii]

First impressions are influenced considerably by nonverbal cues, such as greater direct eye contact, smiling, attentive posture, smaller interpersonal distance, and a direct body orientation.[iv]  A more recent study found that first impression judgments are made in the first ten seconds, and the hiring manager spends the rest of the interview trying to confirm the first impression.

Research shows that unconscious biases in interviewing can be significantly reduced by using rigorously developed and tested artificial intelligent platforms that search and match candidates based on the true criteria for a job. These platforms, such as ThisWay Global, often present job candidates to hiring managers without disclosing names or pictures to prevent human biases.

The use of validated assessments to measure bona fide job qualifications, skills, and competencies also reduces unconscious bias. Developing structured interviews that ask questions based on the actual traits of the company’s most successful performers also significantly reduces unconscious bias. Finally, allow managers to interview only after they have gone through training on how to conduct a structured interview.

We all want to return to a more normal, post pandemic life. Let us not allow the pandemic to ruin the progress we have made with female parity in the workforce. By the next International Women’s Day, let us truly celebrate the progress women have made and see the growth of our economy restored.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 

[i]  Bernard J Luskin, Ed D., LMFT, “MRIs Reveal Unconscious Biases in the Brain: Shining a Light on an Elephant in the Room,” Psychology Today (April 7, 2016).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] B. I. Bolster and B. M. Springbett, “The Reaction of Interviews to Favorable and Unfavorable Information, Journal of Applied Psychology, 45 (1961): 97-103.

[iv] A. S. Imada and B. W. Hamstra, “Influence of Nonverbal Communication and Rater Proximity on Impressions and Decisions in Simulated Employment Interviews,” Journal of Applied Psychology 62 (1972): 295–300.

[v] T. Pricket, N. Gada-Jain, and F. J. Bernieri, “The Importance of First Impressions in a Job Interview,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, Illinois (2000). Discovered in Lazlo Bock, Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google that Will Transform How You Live and Lead (New York, Hatchet Book Group, 2015).

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