How Fashion Can Get Women Back to Work | BoF Professional, News & Analysis

 

Stitch Fix, a brand founded by women, has been able to make a difference in the world of sewing. “gender diversity an intentional focus from day one,” According to its website. It touts flexible work schedules for its more than 6,000 stylists — 98 percent of whom are women — and describes them as “a close-knit community who work part-time from home (or their local coffee shop!).”

“They love the flexibility to set a work schedule that fits into their daily lifestyle,” The website states.

Last month Stitch Fix The flexibility was taken away, and stylists must work at least 20 hours per week, between 8 am-8 pm. These changes are part of a larger strategic shift that also includes new features like live styling sessions with customers.

Stylists who didn’t want to follow the new rules were offered $1,000 exit payments. The number of employees who took the money may have caught the company by surprise, according to analysts at Wells Fargo — although the company said it expected that the changes would not work for every stylist’s “‘personal schedule and preference.’”

Stitch Fix isn’t the only fashion company trying to find a balance between the needs and the female employees. Women around the world have struggled to manage caregiving responsibilities and work obligations throughout the pandemic. According to the International Labour Organization, 64 million women lost their jobs or were laid off in 2020 across all industries. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 2.4 million American women left the workforce between February 2020-2021.

The loss has struck fashion at all levels: Thousands of mostly-female retail associates are in no rush to return Companies that made pre-Covid promises to promote women into management are losing the talent they had spent years training for the C-suite. Stitch Fix found that even minor changes can make a difference for scores of women working in the field.

Uncertainty about childcare during the pandemic is a significant factor. But many of the issues preventing women from working are not new: inadequate childcare has pushed women out of the workforce for decades — as have discrimination by managers, rigid policies regarding in-office work, unequal pay, limited time off and sexual harassment. These issues can be particularly difficult for minority women, as was the case before the pandemic. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the overall US unemployment rate fell to 5.4 % in July. However, the unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic individuals continued to rise to 8.2 percent and 6.6%, respectively.

Experts say that companies must identify and address barriers to women returning to work in order to encourage them to do so.

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“The pandemic has exposed all of the fissures in our economy that disadvantaged women even before the pandemic began,” said Tina Tchen, president and chief executive of Time’s Up, a nonprofit addressing gender-based work discrimination. “[During Covid], we wiped out three decades of progress in a single year … we’ve got to really double down and provide women with the tools that they need to get back into the workforce.”

The Balancing Act

Suzy Nava, a makeup artist for Blushington’s beauty and e-commerce business, returned to work after her maternity leave in February 2020. Even before the pandemic struck a month later she had already made sacrifices in order to balance her career and caring for her newborn.

She voluntarily demoted herself from assistant manager — a promotion she had cinched just before she became pregnant — asked Blushington’s senior leadership to allow her to work a two-day week because she could no longer make the daily two-hour trek from her home to the company’s studio in Los Angeles.

While all of her requests were obliged and she describes Blushington’s leadership as “supportive” and “like family,” Nava admitted that she still feels guilty about the accommodations and financial trade-offs.

“I don’t want to say [that I felt] ‘annoying,’ but … sometimes they’ll have a meeting set up or something like that, and I just can’t make it,” She said.

The pandemic was a serious threat to human health. BlushingtonIt closed its stores and shifted to e-commerce. The academy was also opened online. Nava was able return to full-time work as an instructor, training makeup artists online. She even got promoted to teach Spanish language classes starting in the fall.

“I honestly don’t believe I would be working right now [if I could not do my job virtually],”She said. “A Zoom morning appointment is nothing for me. I used to have to wake up at 4 in the morning to get to the studio from Palmdale [California] … it’s so much better now.”

The ability to work remotely has been a lifesaver for women like Nava. Virtual offices may not be feasible for certain retail or design jobs. Remote work presents its own challenges, especially to parents and caregivers. Globally, 36% reported that they spent at least nine hours a days caring for children in a Gates Foundation survey. That compares with 24% pre-pandemic. Men, however, saw their numbers rise from 7% to 11%.

There should be a shared understanding [productivity] doesn’t mean you have to attend every meeting, or the number of hours logged.

Employers should be aware of the mental health implications of the pandemic in general. “check in more often [and] have mental health resources available,” Val Lopez, a partner in executive recruiting firm Hanold Associates, said:

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“It’s definitely helpful when you have no choice and you know you don’t have child care,” She said. “But the thing companies need to be careful with is work-life balance and mental health because you know there are more women taking over childcare and household chores. There is burnout and burnout quickly.”

In some cases, companies may need to rethink their expectations of employees, and change how they measure productivity.

“There should be an understanding that [productivity] doesn’t mean you have to attend every meeting or the number of hours logged,” Lopez said. “It’s about how good the work is — it shouldn’t matter [so much] when you’re able to do the work but more so the quality of the work.”

Dividends are available for those who have flexibility

Blushington’s virtual classes launched last year. It was expected that the company would attract mainly make-up artists who wanted to increase their skills and create freelance businesses. Chief executive Natasha Cornstein said that the company received many applications, including from women in the medical and retail industries who were motivated by the pandemic to make career changes.

“Sometimes as working women, [our path] is not linear. We onboard and we off-board,” said Cornstein. “You cannot underestimate [the value of] having a variety of backgrounds, ages and genders [at a company].”

Before the pandemic, heightened social focus on mental wellness and pressures from the #MeToo movement and organisations like Time’s Up had accelerated the emphasis on more flexible and supportive work environments for women in fashion among many other industries.

Sometimes working women can be just as successful. [our path]It is not linear. We both onboard and offboard.

Kering and Burberry expanded their maternity and paternity leave policies in 2020. Burberry retooled its policy to make all new parents eligible for at least 18 weeks’ leave and the opportunity to work 80 percent of their normal hours at full pay for four weeks on their return.

Policies that address obstacles women face in the workforce are becoming more important over the past year, especially for people who have quit their jobs.

“For a lot of women, [leaving the workforce] is not an easy decision so returning to work will be something that’s also a major decision,” Lopez said. “The pandemic has made people reassess work-life balance and they are being selective about [jobs] and asking ‘Are you providing all that I need to be comfortable coming back into the workforce — be it subsidised childcare … or pay equity?’”

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Persistent gender pay inequities — women in the US still make, on average, 80 cents to the man’s dollar — mean that working mothers often lag their male partners in earnings and were the ones expected to give up their jobs when the pandemic made homeschooling a necessity.

In May, hundreds of companies across multiple industries — including Tory Burch, Adidas, Patagonia, and Thinx — signed onto the Care Economy Business Council aimed at creating a “caregiving infrastructure” This would help women get back to work. They’re also collaborating on practical initiatives like the #BacktoWork campaign, where council member and women’s workwear brand Argent is offering discounts off its clothing items to help outfit Women looking to return to work. The campaign has already set up dozens of women with recruiters from companies like Glossier, Adidas, Victoria’s Secret and The Gap.

“For us, it was ‘how can we, from a bottom-up perspective, connect job seekers with job opportunities in a way that meets this moment head on and really addresses the crisis that’s at hand?’”Sali Christeson is Argent’s founder and chief executive officer.

The brands have pledged to help reframe it “cultural narrative” They will raise investment and debate who is responsible for care. “innovative solutions to fix the caregiving crisis.”75 members of the group met last month with Gina Raimondo, US Secretary for Commerce via Zoom to advocate for federal funding for free or subsidised care for eldercare, childcare and care for people with disability.

The private sector is dominated by the “universality of the pandemic,” has meant top executives are more enlightened than years’ past about their role in shifting the narrative around what it means to fully support women in their career journeys, said Tchen.

“The pressures on folks, especially women who are balancing work and home, were in front of people like CEOs in ways never before — even CEOs were stuck at home,” She said. “They couldn’t ignore what was going on in their own households and they could see on the Zoom screens and what was going on in their workers’ households.”

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