EGAL, Haas Manbassadors, and Haas Women in Leadership Host Gender Equity Webinar to Discuss Challenges of COVID-19 and Explore the DCC Playbook

On November 12, 2020, The Berkeley Haas Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) and the Haas Manbassadors group, an MBA allyship group within Haas’s Women in Leadership (WiL) MBA club, hosted a fireside chat on dual career couples (“DCC”) and COVID-related gender equity issues in the workplace. The discussion featured Jody Sheu, a Haas EWMBA student, and Mary Beth Ferrante, the Founder and CEO of WRK/360. Sheu is the VP of Intersectionality for WiL, a Senior Product Manager at The Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A Bank, and in a DCC, herself. Ferrante is a mother of two and, prior to founding WRK/360, was an SVP at Bank of America. Her own experience with the Maternal Wall to career advancement for mothers led her to dive into the business of workplace culture and gender equity. In addition to her work at WKR/360, she writes for Forbes on gender issues and is a Maternity Leave coach for Maven Clinic.

The event focused on declining gender equity in the workplace that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, shelter-in-place orders, as well as the difficulties in transitioning to work-from-home. Genevieve Smith, EGAL Associate Director and author of the Supporting Dual Career Couples playbook, noted that even before COVID-19, women were significantly more likely to experience challenges in balancing work demands and caretaking responsibilities. Upon having children, women are often tasked with taking a step away from their professional careers, and those who want to continue working often face increased barriers to advancement. Like in so many other instances, COVID-19 highlighted another disparity in our economy that was less apparent to the uninformed observer and hidden behind recent years of gender equity progress and strong recent economic performance. “We don’t have an infrastructure of care[taking] in this country,” Ferrante said, noting that shelter-in-place orders and school closures left many parents without alternatives. By September 2020, over 800,000 women had been pushed out of the workforce due to COVID-19 and increased at-home burdens; the risk looms larger with potentially up to 2,000,000 women leaving the workforce before the pandemic abates.

Ferrante discussed employee-centric solutions businesses can use to better serve workers and provide increased flexibility in times of crisis. Giving employees optionality is incredibly important to help them feel secure in their work roles and not feel like they need to make binary decisions between either work and a career or caretaking and supporting their family. “It’s about moving forward to supporting the whole employee… [and] it’s about recognizing what is the definition of care,” Ferrante said. More and more women and men are likely to be in DCCs and, at some point in their lives, be responsible for caretaking in today’s working world. Care doesn’t just involve raising a child; it could include caring for a parent or relative, and also definitely includes self-care. Ferrante talked about how companies she works with are looking for ways to offer more holistic support to their employees, or “360 flexibility” as she calls it. It’s about creating a culture of more fluid flexibility initiated by company leadership. For example, why should only new mothers be offered remote work options and only for a limited time period? Companies should look to implement all-encompassing work flexibility options that cater to employees but also still allow for career advancement opportunities. For those planning to enter the workforce, Ferrante noted that COVID-19 has presented a unique opportunity to learn how companies have stepped up to support parents through the crisis.

Ferrante also discussed the importance of empathy in corporate leadership to adapt inclusive policies. Managers should be trained to have tough conversations with employees and drive toward the root concerns employees have about juggling work and home responsibilities. This training will help managers balance the competing interests of the company and employees and create better employee-centric solutions to help employees thrive, which ultimately helps the company’s bottom line.

As future leaders of tomorrow, we found Ferrante’s recommendations regarding managerial training and the importance of clear policies on work flexibility to be quite timely. With respect to managerial training, Ferrante mentioned that, even when companies have flexible policies, middle managers can still run into problems with their direct reports. For example, if a company has a work from home policy, does that mean an employee can work remotely five miles away, or can they work abroad? In short, policies alone are not sufficient; managers must be trained on how to consistently implement such policies. Moreover, Ferrante mentioned when men ask for paternity leave, they are often told “take what you need.” This puts the burden of deciding how much time to take on the employee, rather than the company, which should be encouraging men to take the entirety of leave they are entitled to because this is better for the whole family. Examples like these showcased the ambiguity that all too often exists in workplace policies and reinforces the importance leaders like ourselves designing clear policies and accompanying trainings to equitably empower all employees.

Partnerships are becoming more egalitarian and companies strive to create more inclusive workplaces for the variety of lifestyles and lived experiences of employees. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to support workers and create flexible and customizable solutions for couples, as DCCs are not a homogenous group. Ferrante noted the EGAL Supporting Dual Career Couples Playbook, which helps business leaders think about gender equity and provides solutions to help tackle DEI in the workplace. Each equity fluent leadership “play” in the book provides strategies for managers to implement new initiatives and track their success. Advice from experts, like Ferrante, and guided actions from EGAL’s Playbook can enhance employee productivity by reducing work-life conflict.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.