#HerVisionforTomorrow: Q&A with Dr. Mekala Krishnan

In celebration of the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s 11th Annual International Women’s Day Forum on March 5, we’re spotlighting inspiring women who are working to break barriers to pave a more equal, inclusive, and resilient future for women and girls around the world. Dr. Mekala Krishnan is a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). In this role, she leads MGI’s research on gender economics, inclusive growth, and economic development.

Recent reports indicate that up to two million American women may quit their jobs over the next year due to the pressures of the pandemic, threatening the progress made in women’s empowerment. What can companies do to help reverse this setback? 

The COVID-19 crisis has profoundly altered the workplace. Employers know they must address workplace health and safety for all employees in addition to supporting mental-health needs and fostering connectivity and belonging in remote environments, all against the backdrop of women and other diverse employee populations dealing with unique experiences and inequities. For example, research has found that in recent months, 80 percent of workers leaving the workforce have been women. Our own research finds that mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare—equivalent to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job. They are also 1.5 times as likely to report suffering from mental health issues.

As employers look to respond, they will need to rethink the traditional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Some areas for companies to think about include:

  • Sharpen the DEI priority: Put DEI on the agenda, with an empowered team. Set and track aspirations.
  • Resist business as usual: Think about how your traditional focus areas may need to shift in light of the pandemic. For example, rethinking how performance reviews may need to be different in a remote-work set up.
  • Tackle new challenges: The imperative for mental health is clear across all employee groups, but particularly for women and LGBTQ+ employees. Companies need to think through the implications for their workforce and the role they can best play to support their employees. This could take many forms, ranging from provision of healthcare services and counseling support to manager training.
  • Rethink flexibility and boundaries: Addressing this may require companies to rethink expectations on worker productivity and performance, expand benefits like paid time off, and support employees in establishing boundaries between work and home life.
  • Leadership extends beyond your company walls: Our surveys suggest employees across countries expect businesses to have an external voice on DEI—ranging from committing to community and philanthropic endeavors to engaging with suppliers.
How has the pandemic presented opportunities to reimagine systems and help build more inclusive workplaces?

The pandemic has changed how we work, effectively overnight. In employee surveys we conducted with the Lean In Foundation, flexibility was a top challenge raised by employees in 2019. Fast forward to today, and we see a changed picture of how many employees work, with increasing prevalence of flexible and virtual work. In our surveys, we find that 69 percent of employees say remote work can provide the flexibility they need to have work/life balance, and 70% of employers say that remote work will help hire and retain more diverse employees. 

However, there are also challenges which will need to be managed: how to support a hybrid workforce, helping employees better create boundaries between work and their home life, and managing feelings of isolation and loss of connectivity, to name a few. 

What is your vision or hope for the future of women and girls’ empowerment around the world?

Our research suggests we are at a crossroads today. We estimate that, in a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is taken to counter negative effects on women, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector. Conversely, taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario. Now is the time for companies and leaders to seize the moment by providing needed support, and improve the lives and livelihoods of women globally.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mekala Krishnan spoke on a panel, Action on Gender Equity, at the 11th Annual International Women’s Day Forum. Click here to view the session.