By Tina Tchen, TIME's UP Foundation, and Katy Davis, ideas42


In the past year, nearly 3 million women have left the labor force due to the pandemic and resulting economic recession. At the same time, due to the pandemic, many organizations have adopted new policies regarding work from home and flexible hours, which can positively impact women’s earnings and labor force participation. Now that all American adults are eligible for vaccination, many employers face the decision of whether to embrace new standards going forward or return to business-as-usual.

Changes like increased flexibility could actually strengthen gender equality, but only if they last. In the past, crises such as the Great Depression and World War II also ushered in changes to workplace norms that temporarily benefitted women, but ultimately were not permanent. And employees in sectors where remote work was not possible, such as retail, will face different challenges as customers return to in-person settings amid unfamiliar health and safety procedures. 

This moment of change presents an opportunity for employers across different industries to reshape the workplace altogether—not only offering more flexibility, but also tackling discrimination, bias, and the persistent gender pay gap in order to help all employees advance and thrive.

That’s the premise behind new research from TIME’S UP Foundation and ideas42, which uses behavioral design to address the root causes of discrimination and inequity at work. Rather than changing the behaviors of individuals alone, this approach equips employers with strategies to address systems and practices–from hiring to compensation negotiation to performance evaluations–that often enable discriminatory behaviors in the first place. 

At this critical moment, it’s time to shift the paradigm and reimagine employers’ role in fostering fair and equitable workplaces. Below are three ‘ideal workplace standards’ employers can adopt right away to do just that: 

Ideal Workplace Standard #1: Design a hiring and recruitment process that centers the needs of caregivers. 

Hiring managers often lack clear, explicit criteria that tells them what to look for in a job candidate, creating opportunities for bias when selecting candidates they think “fit the part.” For example, if a woman signals that she is a caregiver, it can activate unconscious biases and flawed assumptions about her potential performance and dedication to paid work. 

As a result, women–especially women of color–who often bear the brunt of care responsibilities at home, can be funneled into part-time, lower-paid, or lower-level positions. Research shows that this sorting of women into specific industries, also known as occupational segregation, can explain roughly 50% of the gender gap in the United States. 

That’s a staggering number, but employers could begin to address occupational segregation by creating a set of standardized hiring criteria that centers the experience of caregivers as the default to reduce bias and broaden women’s opportunities. Reframing caregiving as an asset, rather than a liability, highlights new applicable skills and takes the onus off women to volunteer stereotype-challenging information to affirm their credibility. 

Ideal Workplace Standard #2: Create clear scheduling and work hour expectations that embrace culture changes. 

More than 80% of employers say they will offer flexibility (such as paid time off, shift accommodations, and work from home options) at a greater scale as a result. This is a promising development, as workplace systems are rarely designed with the realities of women’s everyday lives in mind and research reveals that increasing predictability, stability, and scheduling control can increase worker productivity and sales. 

However, flexibility may not benefit workers if the norms around it are unclear. Managers can help employees take better advantage of scheduling flexibility by making clear how to request changes or even providing a default number of flexible days/shifts to all. 

Instituting gender-neutral paid family and medical leave policies with clear guidelines can also level the unequal playing field and create greater work life balance. 

Ideal Workplace Standard #3: Provide a pathway to fair promotions and reframe the definition of leadership. 

Our research is clear — without a structured promotion process, the door is left open for subjective decision-making influenced by personal biases, which can often be unconscious. Unstructured paths to promotion also eschew recency bias, i.e., the tendency to remember only an employee’s most recent successes. 

Creating a regular review cadence for managers to comprehensively evaluate their direct reports and consider them for promotion (without expecting employees to self-nominate) is vital to helping employees move up and ultimately close the pay gap. 

Going hand-in-hand with this is the need to develop structures and standardized evaluation criteria that create a more expansive set of leadership qualities and broadens the way leadership is defined. As it stands right now, managers tend to give more negative feedback to women than to men, and the feedback is more likely to be tied to negative stereotypes and less likely to be connected to their work. This not only hurts women as they try to advance, but it also brings up questions about how we as a society define “ideal leaders.” Employers need to expand their view of what leadership looks like, which over indexes on the stereotypically masculine traits of being “assertive, competitive, and ambitious.”

After a year of COVID-19 has devastated women’s economic progress and exposed longstanding inequities, employers should be equipped with research in order to rethink baked-in expectations and biases that harm workers. It’s past time to shift the paradigm — and use all proven tools that are available to create workplaces that are safe, fair, and dignified for all.

Read From Ideal Worker to Ideal Workplace: Using Behavioral Design to Create More Equitable Companies for more insights.