Reclaiming Space

In their new column, Korn Ferry’s Tessa Misiaszek, Bryn Chighizola, and Annamarya Scaccia explain how companies can overcome recent setbacks and reaffirm women’s achievements.

Bryn Chighizola

Senior Manager, Organizational Research, Korn Ferry Institute

Every March, we celebrate the achievements of women around the globe. This demographic, representing half the world’s population, has been monumental in its contributions to society—despite the presence of chronic systemic barriers. Yet, while progress in education and opportunities have improved in recent decades, women’s professional advancement has experienced erosion over the past five years, ignited by unprecedented historical events. This Women’s History Month, we issue a call to action not only to remember the incredible women in history but to also reaffirm our commitment to creating workplaces where remarkable women can continue to shape history.  

Since 2019, we’ve witnessed a narrative of progress stalled by global upheaval. Women bore the brunt of job losses caused by both a worldwide virus and economic panic, undoing a decade’s worth of positive strides. Meanwhile, working women continued to face multiple battles that complicated their career trajectories—rising childcare costs, unequal sharing of unpaid care work, and the impact of menopause on work experiences. We need a systemic change, one where women’s participation in the workforce shifts from tenuous to robust.

This moment, however, is more than a crossroads of challenges; it’s a call for women to reclaim their time and space in the workplace. Women lost over 12 million jobs in the first three months of the pandemic, primarily in sectors where they are often heavily represented—hospitality, retail, and healthcare. What’s more, recent layoffs in the tech industry underscored the vulnerability of women in male-dominated fields; companies laid off more women than men, raising questions about the sector’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion during times of economic strife. And a recent Korn Ferry survey found that only 63% of women feel their companies are effectively recruiting and developing them for leadership roles; 73% of men, on the other hand, said the same.

Last year, the Korn Ferry Institute illuminated the roles perimenopause and menopause play in the workplace. The lack of awareness around menopause, as revealed by our study, reflects the broader culture of ignorance that often surrounds women's issues at work. Nearly 60% of women experiencing perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms report a significant impact on their work performance, yet the vast majority feel uncomfortable addressing these concerns with their managers. This disconnect perpetuates a cycle of reticence, hindering not only individual well-being and professional progress but also organizational outcomes.

Moreover, the high cost of childcare in the United States, which now exceeds $10,000 per year, presents a substantial hurdle, particularly for women in low- to middle-income brackets. This financial burden forces many women to choose between their careers and childcare—a choice often resulting in professional and economic setbacks.

Yet, amidst these challenges lies an opportunity for change. But for this to be achieved, organizations must invest in women's advancement as a strategic imperative, and reaffirm their progress as a cornerstone of organizational resilience, innovation, sustainability, and growth. By creating a supportive ecosystem with flexible work options, leadership development, tailored coaching for women's unique career paths, and comprehensive health benefits, companies can transform the workplace into a domain where women can thrive.

Including more women in the workforce not only benefits individuals and improves organizational effectiveness, but research also shows that it positively impacts environmental and social issues. While there is more to learn about this relationship, it’s clear that female representation has a positive influence both on the organization and retention rates. According to a recent longitudinal Korn Ferry study, showing this higher level responsibility is a key driver for why women choose to stay in a company.  

The challenge ahead is daunting, but the need to act is evident. By confronting the systemic barriers that have impeded women's progress, companies can unlock a future of unparalleled innovation and diversity. This is more than a moment of reflection on women's past accomplishments; it's a crucial opportunity for women to take back their time, space, and rightful place in the workplace, aiming for a future where their contributions are not just acknowledged but celebrated.

The Korn Ferry Institute is acting on this call to action. We are conducting research into the representation and impact of women on boards. Our focus on board-level study aims to help organizations close gender gaps at the highest levels of leadership. Join us in creating more inclusive, equitable workplaces.