After two years of constant stress and uncertainty during the pandemic, many people are now coming back to the workforce and to the physical workplace. But this return to work can’t be a one-size-fits-all experience. This is especially true for women (a term I will use throughout this article to denote people who identify as women, regardless of sex assigned at birth).
For some women, returning to the workforce or workplace will be filled with excitement toward the structure that was lost and never fully found with virtual work—either due to taking on new responsibilities at home while juggling work or managing attention and concentration challenges. Others may feel ambivalence or dread toward having to put on a “mask” at work to fit in or curb unwanted attention. This can range from hiding parts of our authentic selves due to dress codes, experiences and expectations of harassment and discrimination, and pressures to adjust our style of speech to meet certain professionalism standards—also known as code-switching. Others may fall somewhere in between anticipation and hesitation.
Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum, returning to the workforce brings uncertainty, as well as potential for redefining the workplace. In this conversation with Dr. Andrea Holman, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) program manager at Lyra Health, we explore the challenges facing women who are both returning to the physical workforce and re-entering it after taking time off in the last two years, and how employers can mitigate some of the fears of those coming back.
Evelyn: How do you define what it means for women to “return” to the workplace?
Dr. Holman: Many women began working remotely during the pandemic and are only recently navigating the resulting changes in their schedule and workplace. Returning to the workplace for them means managing needs for commuting expenses, a new routine, exposure to illness, and care needs for children or elderly that can create a new level of stress and anxiety.
Other women hold jobs that did not allow for them to leave their physical workplaces and are now years into working face to face and risking exposure to illness, which can create feelings of stress, burnout, and fatigue. The mental load and sacrifices of this group of women is often unacknowledged, which can also be difficult to manage. And still others have started new jobs or changed careers in the past years, and returning to the workplace means returning to a new workplace with new co-workers, many of whom they have never met in person.
Despite some of the differences between these groups of women, it suffices to say that as COVID-19 rates decrease and in-person interactions increase, there are unique challenges and stressors that women are facing while working.
Evelyn: Women as a group are extremely diverse and can have many intersecting social identities. How does that present challenges for employers when it comes to supporting women in their workforces?
Dr. Holman: Like any social identity group, it is important to remember that women are not a monolithic group; there are beautiful and vast differences in how people define womanhood and how they choose to present themselves as women. The intersections of other identities like race, sex, parental status, ability status, veteran status, country of origin, and more create even more variety in what womanhood looks like.
With that in mind, it can be problematic when employers attempt to address the inclusion and safety of women in the workplace with a one-size-fits-all approach. The real and valid considerations for safety and inclusion of a subgroup of women in a workplace may be overlooked or invalidated because of failure to address the group’s diversity.
Evelyn: What challenges are coming up in general in supporting women who are returning to the workforce?
Dr. Holman: The Great Resignation of 2021, a time during which millions of Americans quit their jobs, was a movement that many argued was led by women for a variety of reasons. Many women found that negotiating child or elder care needs, home responsibilities, and more while working during the pandemic was either too difficult or not worth the mental and physical health strain. Now, two years after the start of the pandemic, many of these issues are still very relevant in the day-to-day lives of women in the workforce.
Evelyn: Absolutely. It’s also important to note that, to address this question, we have to acknowledge the vast diversity of experiences among women—and therefore the vast diversity of needs. To support women who are reentering the workforce or coming back into the physical workspace, it will be essential for employers to check in with their female workforce on an ongoing basis about what has worked and what no longer works given the significant changes that we have all undergone.
Dr. Holman: Yes, exactly. Many people have entered 2022 carrying more loss, trauma, and fatigue than they ever predicted. It is not realistic to presume that returning to the workplace means resuming business as usual circa 2019. We are changed, and many of us are wounded. We have gained responsibilities, lost loved ones, and created new norms. With that in mind, it is critical that employers meet women where they are and understand that the policies and procedures for their employees that were in place in 2019 regarding things like mental health care, leave policies, and care support may need to be revamped or removed.
Evelyn: Returning to the workforce will also require employers and employees alike to reimagine what a work environment could look like and how it can operate. For those of us who transitioned to remote work, the last two years have proven that there can be much more flexibility in how we approach our work than we previously imagined. How can we tap into creativity to build work environments that are inclusive of these new developments? Not just in terms of infrastructure but in employees’ perceptions of how they relate to their work.
Specifically for women, employers should foster work environments that do not confine women to rigid professionalism politics and double standards regarding communication and other interpersonal interactions. For instance, the skills gained from taking leave from work to care for a loved one should be viewed as valuable and transferrable, rather than a “gap” in someone’s resume. Men continue to be praised for being assertive while women may be called “too bossy.” For women of color, this same trait has even been misconstrued as being “too aggressive.” On the flip side, not being assertive enough, has led to doubts about women’s intelligence, undermining their expertise and limiting opportunities.
Evelyn: What challenges are presenting themselves for BIPOC, transgender, and traditionally marginalized women who are physically returning to the workplace?
Dr. Holman: Women of color who have been working remotely since 2020 and are now returning in some way to a physical workspace may experience some stress and anxiety. For example, a recent survey indicated that 97 percent of Black employees polled did not want to return to the office, due to the potential for microaggressions, discrimination, and pressure to assimilate into mainstream cultural norms. Men of color also face these concerns, but many cisgender women are considering the threat of workplace harassment due to both gender and race.
Evelyn: That’s why employers should take steps to protect and promote the rights of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations. During the pandemic, many of us have had time to get to know our authentic selves more closely. For many women, these reflection periods have led to transitions in gender identity as well as shifts in sexual orientation.
It is essential that employers and employees remember that growth and change are constant, while also making efforts to incorporate policies and procedures that support members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, a recent study shows strong associations between employers that incorporate these practices into their workplace culture and the psychological well-being and job attitudes of LGBTQIA+ employees.
Dr. Holman: Exactly. Transgender women returning to face-to-face interactions, for example, will also be exposed to increased threats of physical violence and employment discrimination—something that occurs in even higher rates for transgender women of color. While working at home, many of these women found a reprieve from the aforementioned issues they’ve navigated and endured for years, so leaving a consistently safe space to become more vulnerable to physical and psychological threat comes with understandable hesitation.
Evelyn: So how can employers begin to address these challenges in tangible ways?
Dr. Holman: Employers can update policies and procedures that reflect safety and inclusion both in a virtual and in-person format for women, women of color, and transgender women. Set expectations for production and performance based on the needs of 2022, not 2019, because returning to a workspace does not mean that we all return to the level of output we had before all the events of the past two years.
Offering flexibility in schedules and hybrid work options can increase feelings of safety as well. Ensure pay structures are equitable and all employees are compensated appropriately for their efforts. Often, womanhood is synonymous with certain roles such as mothering, caregiving, and nurturing. Women often have to manage the expectations people have of them to be maternal as well as service-oriented (even when they do not care for children in their home). This can show up in the workplace too.
Supporting women in the workplace can also look like identifying and countering assumptions that a woman could or should take on roles or responsibilities that involve caring for customers or other co-workers. Intentionally seek to offer visibility and servant leadership for all employees, especially women, and do not assume or expect a level of service from them.
Evelyn: What about ways to support inclusion and safety?
Dr. Holman: Any efforts to increase inclusion and safety are more meaningful and impactful when they are made based on the expressed wants and needs of the people you want to advocate for. Make a consistent practice of asking women in the workplace what they need and respond directly and appropriately. Offering care support for people who are having to juggle the responsibilities of caring for youth, older people, or someone with a disability would also be a great way to support women in the workplace.
Evelyn: Supporting all women also means supporting women with disabilities. We must ensure that our understanding of disabilities considers both invisible and visible disabilities—whether that is physical accommodations, changes in management styles that are inclusive of diversity in learning and productivity output, and differences in communication styles. As employers get ready to set offices back up, consider physical layouts and the role of sensory sensitivities (e.g., noise, scents, lighting). Performance and evaluation measures can also be updated to be more inclusive of employees’ different working styles and needs. When thinking about inclusion of trans women in the workplace, one tangible step employers can take is to make sure insurance policies provide coverage for gender-affirming surgeries and procedures for their transgender employees. When selecting plans that will be offered to employees, they should read the fine print to ensure that there no exclusions for transgender care.
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ABOUT THE EXPERTS:
Evelyn Farias is a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) program specialist for workforce transformation at Lyra Health. Prior to this role, she worked as a therapist, specializing in working with BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ populations, as well as monolingual Spanish-speakers and activists.
Dr. Andrea Holman began working for Lyra Health as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) program manager for workforce transformation in June 2021. Prior to this role, she served as a tenured associate professor of psychology.