Before the pandemic hit, employers were gradually acknowledging the role of mentoring in leveling the playing field for working women—though there was much room for improvement, says Seena Mortazavi, CEO of Chronus, a mentoring software provider. Now, however, that progress needs to be kicked into high gear, as the global health crisis continues to unfurl a disproportionate impact on women.
In pre-pandemic times, many organizations’ formal mentoring programs for women were part of a D&I checkbox—there may have been a structure in place, Mortazavi says, even if adoption wasn’t high or women weren’t reaping the benefits. And, many programs weren’t specifically tailored to or providing support for the obstacles that some women face in climbing the corporate ladder: making return-to-work decisions after having a child, navigating work/life balance or overcoming the workplace disparities as members of ethnic or racial minority groups.
“A lot of organizations have bucketed women into one big category [with their mentoring programs],” Mortazavi says. “But it shouldn’t just be about having a checkbox for anyone who wants to participate, but rather much more focused mentoring, messaging and resources for different groups of women who face different types of challenges in the workplace.”
That need has increased tenfold with the pandemic.
Recent research has shown pandemic-related challenges to be dramatically higher among women than men. One study found that depression levels among working women increased by 83% between February and July, compared to 36% for working men. The ongoing childcare crisis is also largely being shouldered by working mothers, while women are also at a higher risk for employment changes, such as reduced hours and layoffs, related to the pandemic, owing in part to the fact that women are more likely to work in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.
Those factors are fueling fear of a mass exodus of women from the workforce.
“All of these dynamics are creating new challenges for women today and exasperating the hurdles they already had in the past,” Mortazavi says. “Especially for those at a critical point in their career—maybe in the mid-career marathon where they’re looking to get into their first manager role or break through to the next level—there’s usually a window of opportunity to make those big jumps, so these extra hurdles can really set them back.”
Flexible working environments and childcare accommodations are among the ways employers can help women both stay in the workforce and thrive, he says. Mentoring also needs to be a critical factor in that strategy.
However, given the nature of the widespread shift to remote work, employers shouldn’t wait until in-person business operations eventually resume to restart their formal programs, as virtual mentoring can be both a short- and long-term addition, Mortazavi says.
In May, Chronus introduced Chronus Virtual Meet, which is built into its platform, enables one-on-one video meetings and can also be integrated into Zoom and Slack.
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“We strongly believe virtual mentoring can support women right now and make sure they don’t fall behind,” he says. “Both from the informal and formal mentoring standpoints, there are so many benefits of making sure women are connected with other people in the organization to be making the right decisions to help propel their careers.”