8 Steps Employers Can Take to Support Women in Their Workforce

Apr 20, 2021

By The Lyra Team

Recently, we highlighted key mental health issues affecting working women, particularly the disproportionate lack of support for women and female-identifying individuals in the workplace. These include persistent challenges like excess cognitive load, unequal division of labor, lack of institutional systems to support women, ongoing racial injustice, and uncompensated reliance on Black women. 

While it’s crucial to recognize these inequities, awareness is only the first step, and it’s just as vital to take actionable steps to address them. That’s where employers can make a significant and meaningful difference. What follows are eight steps to get started in creating a more supportive workplace for women.

1. Acknowledge inequity

According to Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, many individuals–including company leaders–might worry that talking about inequity is an admission of bias in itself. For example, broaching the difficulties of unequal division of labor could be seen as promotion of the belief that women should and can be taking care of children.

However, according to Lyra Clinical Manager of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB), Danielle Cottonham, PhD, “Talking about it is the first step toward creating a constructive, engaging dialogue with employees that leads to building structures that support them.” As Cottonham explains, some of what you may hear in these discussions might be uncomfortable, because talking about inequities can uncover systemic problems—and discomfort that is not rooted in shame can be a catalyst for change. 

2. Examine underlying structures in your company that may need to change

As you consider women employees’ needs, you may find that your company will need to do more than tweak benefits offerings. According to Lyra Clinical Quality Lead and therapist Elizabeth Rojas, PhD, “These concerns are coming up for a reason, and that root is often a problematic underlying structure. Leaving that unaddressed and trying to compensate with a few minor changes is a short-term solution at best.”

Instead, take risks in looking at how you’re going to change your company’s structures and systems to better prioritize female mental health. In some cases, this could mean a major overhaul of reporting structures, benefits, and workload distribution. It may mean investing in female employees through mentorship. Addressing company structure means going well beyond what’s covered by human resources.

For instance, as Rojas says, “There are challenges in returning to work after maternity leave, and often-times, no processes in place to ease the transition back into work. Women are, for example, frequently expected to go right back to what they are doing or more without any orientation or support.”

3. Understand female employees’ barriers to care, and take actions to dismantle them 

As an employer, what are you communicating about your mental health benefit to employees? The language used for communicating the advantages of these benefits is important, and employees shouldn’t feel stigmatized for wanting to use these resources. Make sure that mental health support is not just described as “available,” but is actively encouraged. Also, consider eliciting testimonials from people within the executive leadership, manager, and individual contributor levels of the company that highlight the personal benefits of seeking professional support as a way of normalizing help-seeking and demonstrating the universality of mental health. 

If utilization rates are low and the messaging isn’t the issue, other barriers might be. Take time to talk with female employees about what the sticking points may be. There could be barriers you hadn’t considered–like a culture of full schedules and constant deliverables– but are hindering most of the women in the organization.

4. Look to underrepresented employee groups to understand their needs

Employee resource groups are growing globally, and there are many reasons to encourage them, including retention. A Harvard Business Review article noted that 50 percent of those surveyed who were in Black employee resource groups would remain at a company solely because it supported these efforts. Tapping into these groups’ insights can be incredibly valuable–whether that is through your company’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)  team, a DEIB consultant, or your HR team. Include women in these groups, or bring together women from different employee resource groups if that’s an option.

Keep in mind these employees don’t need saving, they need change. A major part of the difference between the two is that when you want to save someone, you’re seeing the situation from a perspective of power—you’re deciding what’s needed and how to create that action. When you’re open to facilitating change based on these groups’ input, you’re promoting equality and a deeper conversation about systemic shifts in the workplace. Remember that by helping you facilitate change, these employees are doing extra work, and should be compensated accordingly. 

5. Examine the messages you’re sending to women in your workplace

In terms of messages, this includes both literal and figurative communication. On the literal side, the company may be using language in its material for women that could be perceived in a negative way. For example, when your company talks about child care or women’s health, is the focus on the well-being of your employee, or on how their productivity is being affected by child and health care issues?

There are also figurative, subtle messages the company could be implicitly sending with policies and promotions. Review who advances in your organization, how salaries are configured, and consider whether women are hired at a lower rate than men with the same experience level. 

It’s also important to evaluate what health care is available, and whether policies like vacation and maternity and paternity leave are empowering or defeating. “Considering messages is crucial to supporting women in the workforce. For example, most companies still don’t offer paternity leave, which sends a strong message to their employees about their expectations for gender roles,” says Clinical Quality Lead and Lyra therapist Megan Kelly, PsyD. “Additionally, many maternity leave policies aren’t actually focused on promoting the well-being of a new mother–they are often more focused on the return-to-work outcome.” All of these policies send messages to your female employees about how their work is valued.

6. Train your managers to talk about barriers women face with their teams and provide the right support

How your managers approach employees about mental health benefits can go a long way toward making sure workers are aware of these resources and feel comfortable using them. It’s also helpful to give managers more in-depth training on how to appropriately identify and broach emotional distress at work in a way that builds trust and connects employees to the right benefits and resources.

Offer workshops and certification programs for managers so they’ll be prepared to respond appropriately during a crisis or prevent a situation from escalating into a crisis. There are manager resources available that can get you started.

7. Make sure your employees have the time and space to seek help when they need it

Having benefits that offer mental health support is important, but it’s not enough to simply offer that resource if your female employees don’t use it–especially if the reason they aren’t able to use it is because of their workload. They might even think they have to use the benefit in their “spare” time, which is likely in very limited supply.

To utilize mental health resources effectively, employees need flexibility and understanding, which might mean changing their workloads and allowing for increased delegation. Or it could involve complete leave from work responsibilities for a certain time. Every situation and employee is different, but addressing their needs starts with making those needs a top priority. Remember that all of this must be done with regard for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and with a designated and legally approved process in place. 

8. Offer a comprehensive and full-suite mental health benefit

Offering a dedicated mental health benefit can be indispensable in supporting women in the workplace. 

Even pre-pandemic, the importance of workplace mental health initiatives was highlighted by experts like the Centers for Disease Control, which noted that 71 percent of adults reported at least one symptom of stress—and that many people with mental health issues also need care for other physical health conditions. For women, the added stress of job loss and increased care-giver duties throughout the pandemic has substantially aggravated mental health issues. In a recent poll by Kaiser, 53 percent of women surveyed reported negative mental health impacts of COVID-19, compared to 37 percent of their male counterparts.

Providing a comprehensive mental health benefit emphasizes that your company values mental well-being, and doesn’t see it as just an “add-on” to health care, but as a potentially transformative way to support your workforce. Your mental health offering needs to address a full continuum of need–from daily stress to more severe symptoms–so that it can serve everyone who may need it. 

Right now, there is a dire need for change for women’s mental health, both inside and outside the workplace–women are struggling to regain their footing in the workforce amid the pandemic. While grassroots efforts and self-advocacy are important, that change must also be driven by company leaders, and supported at every level. 

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DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:

Danielle Cottonham is a licensed psychologist in California and serves as the Clinical Manager for Lyra Health’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging initiatives. Her clinical and research expertise include: PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorders, race-based traumatic stress and the impact of racial discrimination on mental health in the Black community, and culturally informed evidence-based practice. Dr. Cottonham’s work is rooted in her experience as a Black woman who was born and raised in southern Louisiana. She has a passion for destigmatizing mental health in minority communities and providing safe spaces that promote connection, authenticity, and healing.

Megan Kelly is a Clinical Quality Lead with our Blended Care Therapy program and contributes to clinical quality and training development. Prior to joining Lyra, Dr. Kelly maintained a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and was clinical faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine as a member of the comprehensive Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Team. She specializes in maternal mental health, women’s mental health and trauma. She received her Doctorate of Psychology from the PGSP-Stanford PsyD Consortium.

Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Rojas, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and serves as a Clinical Quality Lead and therapist at Lyra Health. Dr. Rojas oversees the clinical quality and training development for the Blended Care Program.  She specializes in treatment of PTSD/trauma and co-occurring addiction and personality disorders. She earned her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of South Florida and completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship training at Veterans Affairs Healthcare System Consortiums in California. Prior to joining Lyra she served as lead clinical psychologist for the Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Program at Palo Alto VA. She currently resides in San Diego, CA with her kitty, Granny Mushroom.