For many women, the glass ceiling looks higher in a post-pandemic world


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the status of women in the workforce. One in four women — versus one in five men — are now considering leaving their jobs or “downshifting” their careers for reasons related to the pandemic’s impact on their lives, McKinsey & Co. reported earlier this year.  

The current jobs picture for women was starkly apparent in the September U.S. employment report, which showed the economic recovery stalled as COVID-19 cases surged during the month. An “alarming” number of women — 309,000 — dropped out of the labor force in September to again deal with the pandemic’s effect on situations such as child care, according to The Washington Post, citing U.S. Department of Labor statistics. In contrast, 182,000 men joined the labor force, the newspaper reported. 

Prior to the pandemic's March 2020 onset, the representation of women in the U.S. workforce had been advancing. Women were also making gains climbing the corporate ladder: Between January 2015 and December 2019, the number of women in senior vice president posts rose from 23% to 28%, and in the c-suite from 17% to 21%, according to McKinsey. 

How can work toward gender parity in the workplace recover from the COVID-19 setback?  

That question was discussed last week during a webinar titled, “Women at the Helm 2.0: The Future of Women in Transportation,” presented by the Eno Center for Transportation. The panel featured comments from Jennifer Aument, chief executive of global transportation at AECOM; and Denise Turner Roth, president of U.S. Advisory Services, WSP. The conversation was moderated by Marjorie Dickman, chief of government affairs and public policy officer at Blackberry. 

Regain lost ground

Dickman kicked off the conversation by asking Aument and Roth how women can regain the career advancements they may have lost during the pandemic.  

“We know that women who leave the workforce can be at a disadvantage when returning, both in terms of seniority level and compensation,” Dickman said. “So, as women reenter the workforce, how can we continue to elevate them to higher positions and how are your organizations innovating to address this challenge?”  

Companies should be “intentional” about encouraging women to move into what have been considered nontraditional roles in transportation and infrastructure, Roth said. Being intentional means setting goals and creating a pipeline of female candidates for leadership positions and putting in place a network of people who will support them as they seek to advance within an organization. 

The Port of Long Beach “If you see someone in a role that you think you’re interested in, take the time to ask them how they got to where they are today.” — Denise Turner Roth, WSP

Roth praised a WSP program that identifies individuals who are ready for leadership and are representative of a diverse pool across the company. Those people are connected with sponsors, or people who will keep them in the know about emerging opportunities and roles that might suit them, Roth said. 

While the pandemic has been devastating on many women’s careers, it also has been an opportunity for employers to develop flexibility options for their workforce — options that can help women stay on track, said Aument. 

“At AECOM, we have an ecosystem between your home, your office and your client,” she said. “We challenge our leaders to work with their teams to say, ‘How do you make that ecosystem work so that we can create an environment that’s flexible and that enables our employees to come back [to the workplace] and thrive?’” 

One way AECOM has done this is by “rethinking the virtual and concrete workplace,” she said. In large cities such as Los Angeles, AECOM has established satellite offices that are closer to employees’ homes than they were prior to the pandemic. The satellite locations have enabled employees to meet with clients at the office and still have enough time to travel to children’s school or sports events, for example. 

Another key factor to advancing gender parity is “getting back to the basics that we know work,” such as developing diverse candidate pools to draw from when key positions open, then having the data to chart how those positions are filled, Aument said. 

“You don’t succeed in things unless you measure them,” she added. 

Recruiting a more diverse workforce is one step; retaining and promoting those employees is another. Dickman asked Roth and Aument to discuss how the transportation sector can do a better job regarding the latter. 

The Port of Long Beach “I’ve learned that a key skill to get to that c-suite is endurance.” — Jennifer Aument, AECOM LinkedIn photo

“Women in the transportation industry remain very under-represented in the c-suite,” Dickman said. “For example, a 2019 study shows that women comprised 39% of the transit industry workforce, but only three transit agency CEOs were women. This lack of representation is even more significant for women of color. How can organizations be intentional in terms of increasing the representation of women in the c-suite, including women of color?” 

By being deliberate about succession- and career-planning, Aument said. 

“At AECOM, we make sure to recognize people in the organization who are in a position to succeed and then build a career plan around them,” she said. “[We] rotate them around [different departments] to get the skill set they need to move up and take those roles. That doesn’t happen by accident.” 

While female employees who want to advance to leadership positions gain the work experience they need to move up, “the onus is on us, the employer, to have that career-planning session and say, ‘This is a great pool of people that are the future talent of this organization and how do we make sure we build a path for them and support them?’” Aument added.

Beware of ‘female fatigue’

Also, women who are farther ahead on the leadership path have an obligation to help the female talent pool behind them stay on course, Aument said. 

“We have to make sure we keep an eye out for what I call ‘female fatigue,’ she said. “We know of women who are on that path and who deal with an extra set of challenges that perhaps you don’t see men have. Whether that’s managing a work life with kids or aging parents or facing microaggressions, there is a fatigue that comes with that.” 

Train managers to be alert to “female fatigue” and make sure resources are in place to help those employees who face those challenges, Aument added. 

Roth advised young women who are early in their careers — and who may not yet know what their next career steps will be — to build a support system of peers who they can learn from.  

“If you see someone in a role that you think you’re interested in, take the time to ask them how they got to where they are today,” Roth said. “They can help you develop your [career] plan, whether you want to be CEO or not.” 

But what about women who work for companies that don’t necessarily value diversity? What skills should women develop if they want to break through a glass ceiling? Dickman asked. 

Both Aument and Roth advised women to take care of their mental and physical well-being. 

“I’ve learned that a key skill to get to that c-suite is endurance,” Aument said. “As women, we often put ourselves and our health last. But as you move up, jobs get more intense and complex. You have to fuel your brain and body to deal with that.”