Inclusivity is Vital to Pandemic Recovery
The pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn adversely impacted women and brought to the forefront systemic gender and racial inequalities. Women’s labor-force participation is at a three-decade low and more than 2.3 million women have dropped out of the labor force since last February.
At the International Women’s Day Forum, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Carolyn Cawley and I discussed how businesses must create an inclusive recovery. Ensuring equal opportunity to succeed is essential as we rebuild our economy – and keeping women in the workforce is a key driver. The choices companies make today will impact our nation’s progress toward closing the economic inequality gap for decades to come.
Now more than ever, we must lead with empathy and understand the needs of our entire workforce. Many women are balancing a tremendous amount between work and their families. From caring for their children to supporting elderly family members to the day-to-day challenges of juggling home and work, they are carrying a heavy mental burden.
It’s incumbent on corporate America – on all of us – to take bold action to assist women and all underrepresented populations. Whether it’s expanding emergency childcare and eldercare support, deepening investments in mental health solutions or equipping people with skills and leadership development training, we must ensure access, support and sponsorship.
Leading a company that is nearly 60 percent female, I see firsthand the opportunities we have to better help women succeed in the workplace and I’ve been inspired by the creative solutions our team has developed to do just that.
One action we took last summer to ease the pressure on working parents was the launch of Synchrony Summer Camp. Our CIO Carol Juel, together with our HR team and a team of Synchrony volunteers, moved quickly to design an interactive virtual program for our employees’ children across a diverse range of topics including arts, dance, STEM and American Sign Language. Approximately 3,700 “campers,” our employees’ children, participated in these virtual sessions taught by 130 volunteer summer leadership “externs.” The externs were high school- and college-aged children of our employees who may not have otherwise been able to find summer work during the pandemic. Once the school year began, we turned the program into Synchrony After School with virtual tutoring sessions and extracurricular activities.
Another way to support women is by offering permanent work flexibility. COVID-19 proved to me that there is virtually no role that can’t be done remotely at Synchrony, including our contact center jobs. The pandemic was the worst possible catalyst, but it forced us to make a transition. To give the flexibility our employees desire, we’re now offering the choice to work from home permanently or return to the office when it is safe. Post-pandemic, we will move away from traditional offices to a “hub” model that will enable our people to visit a Synchrony office, co-working space, or other gathering spot when they need. We will also continue to offer flexible work arrangements.
Business leaders must also help address the mental health tolls of the pandemic. Women predominately serve as the “Chief Medical Officer” of their families but often don’t take time to focus on their own health. We must invest more in solutions for the mental health and well-being of our people. Employers need to make these services available to employees while ensuring they are convenient and simple to use.
At Synchrony, we transformed our wellness offerings by providing telehealth visits and virtual access to wellness coaches for our employees and their household members. We added diverse mental health counselors to our roster of support after hearing from our employees. This won’t change post-COVID. Wellness counselors have helped our people and their families address anxiety and stress. We also launched a program called Synchrony360 that supports our people’s total well-being across all aspects of life: health, life, finance and career.
There are many steps companies can and are taking to support women. As we celebrate Women’s History Month and beyond, I urge leaders in the private and public sectors to recommit to people – by building a workforce that works for all, that reflects the diverse customers we serve and that adapts to the evolving needs of our teams. I’m hopeful we can correct the trends set in motion by COVID-19. There’s simply too much at stake.
Margaret Keane is the Chief Executive Officer of Synchrony. She spoke with U.S. Chamber Foundation President Carolyn Cawley at the U.S. Chamber Foundation's International Women's Day Forum. Catch the conversation here.