The “SHEcession,” otherwise known as the increased effects of job and income losses on women, is more prevalent than ever before. A recent conversation in The Equality Lounge at NRF Retail Converge looked at the ways COVID-19 has impacted women at work, and offered tangible solutions for companies to support them in their return to the workforce.

“One of the things we love is not just to talk about the negative, the SHEcession, but also the positive, the ‘SHEcovery’ — what it is, how we’re going to get there, and what we need to do to truly create the solutions for change and hold ourselves accountable for what’s next in creating a more equitable future,” explained session moderator Shelley Zalis, CEO, The Female Quotient.

Zalis noted that waiting and watching isn’t the solution for change — it’s all about intentionality and acting upon the opportunities we all have at our fingertips right now to create a more equitable future for everyone.

Zalis asked her two panel members what companies need to do to attract women back into the workforce.

Anisha Raghavan, chief marketing officer, global brands Americas, Walgreens Boot Alliance, is working with several of the company’s brands to raise awareness about the SHEcovery and provide resources to aid women in getting back to work.

Raghavan responded that if she had to summarize the answer to three items that must be addressed, those would be representation, gender pay gap, and benefit policies.

“We now have 37 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” Raghavan said regarding representation. “That’s awesome because it’s the highest we’ve ever had, but there are still 463 male CEOs. That’s a massive gap. The DEI alarm bells have been and should be sounding.”

Raghavan said decision makers need to make a concerted effort for representation in leadership roles, and that diversifying those executive positions must stay at the forefront of every leader’s mind. People want to see themselves reflected in their leadership. Therefore, if a company wants to retain women, then they need to have women in leadership positions.

One of the reasons the SHEcession happened is because of the gender pay gap, according to Raghavan.

“There’s still this gender stereotype around women carrying the burden at home,” said Raghavan. “But even if there’s a couple who doesn’t ascribe to these gender stereotypes, if your childcare options have closed and you’re talking with your spouse to figure out who needs to stay home, it’s going to be the person who makes less, and in most cases that’s the woman.”

Corporate America needs to take the responsibility and due diligence to evaluate gender equity and then make a fix where problems are apparent, Raghavan emphasized.

Only 20 percent of companies have any sort of childcare assistance, be that on-site daycare, referral services, maternity leave, or subsidies. Raghavan said the U.S. has a long way to go to enable people to achieve work-life balance. In addition, male colleagues often report feeling judged when they take paternity leave from the few places that do offer it. As such, male leaders need to take their paternity leave and set examples for their teams.

Eve Rodsky, best-selling author of “Fair Play,” said she was talking to a male leader who said he’d been asking his male employees if they were taking their paternity leave.

“I said, ‘I appreciate that, but it’s the wrong question,’” Rodsky shared. “The question is ‘when.’ That ‘if’ is no longer serving us. We need to think about how we ask these questions to create a culture.”

Rodsky’s framework for thinking about how to tackle the SHEcession issue is “fair play, fair pay and fair day.”

Fair play is the idea of parenting out loud, said Rodsky. Instead of pushing our child out of the picture, we should celebrate caregiving from the top down. We’re not lying to each other to pretend we’re just a worker in a chair without any caregiving responsibilities. We have humanity. That’s the fair play aspect — inviting men into their full power as caregivers so that women can step into their full power in the world.

“Seventy-five [percent] to 80 percent of the pay gap is the motherhood penalty,” noted Rodsky. “But if men do their part in the fair play, then we can normalize it for everybody, which will hopefully lessen or close the gender pay gap. Fair day is that we want predictability and flexibility. If you just have flexibility for certain workers, you end up having two groups: people who take the flexibility and people who don’t. You end up pitting people who are caregivers against people who aren’t. Fair day is where everybody gets to sign off at 1 p.m. on Friday to get their personal stuff done regardless of family structure, for example.”

Zalis said she loved the concept of predictable flexibility. She shared a recent conversation she had with a HR department head who said the company was considering implementing an elective flexible work policy.

“If you make it elective, who is going to take it?” asked Zalis. “Women, women of color, primary caregivers. We’re going to go back to the triple bias effect. We need it to be not an exception, but a new norm. Everyone can have the flexibility of how they take their flexibility, but everyone has to take it. Then we’re put back into a level playing field.”