Stitch Fix is a female-founded brand that has made “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 says.
Last month, Stitch Fix removed a bit of that flexibility, requiring stylists to work at least 20 hours a week between 8 am and 8 pm. The changes were part of a broader strategic shift that includes new features such as 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 attempting to strike a balance between the needs of the business and its female employees. Throughout the pandemic, women around the world have struggled to juggle caregiving responsibilities and work obligations. Globally across all industries, 64 million women were laid off or quit their jobs in 2020, according to the International Labour Organization. In the US, about 2.4 million women left the labour force between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Pew Research Center.
The loss has hit fashion at all levels: thousands of mostly-female retail store associates are in no rush to return to their posts and companies that had made pre-Covid commitments to promote women into management are losing talent they spent years grooming for the C-suite. Even minor changes can be a deal-breaker for scores of working women, as Stitch Fix discovered.
Uncertainty around childcare during the pandemic is a major 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. As was the case pre-pandemic, these challenges can hit minority women especially hard. The overall US unemployment fell to 5.4 percent in July, but for Black and Hispanic people the rate of unemployment continued to trend higher, at 8.2 percent and 6.6 percent respectively, according to data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.
To get women to come back, companies will need to identify and tackle barriers head-on, experts say.
“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 at the beauty services and e-commerce company Blushington, returned to work from maternity leave in February 2020. Even before the pandemic hit a month later, she had already made sacrifices to balance her career with caring for a newborn.
She voluntarily demoted herself from assistant manager — a promotion she had cinched just before she became pregnant — and 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 said she was still shouldering guilt about the accommodations required, and the 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.
When the pandemic took hold, Blushington closed its stores, pivoted to e-commerce and opened an online teaching academy. Nava was able to return to work full time as an instructor virtually training makeup artists. She even secured a promotion to teach Spanish-language classes starting this 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.”
For women like Nava, the ability to work remotely has been a saving grace. But virtual offices may not be possible for certain retail and design jobs. And remote work comes with its own challenges, especially for parents and caregivers. Globally, 36 percent of women reported spending at least nine hours a day on childcare in a Gates Foundation survey released in June, compared with 24 percent pre-pandemic (for men, the figure rose from 7 percent to 11 percent).
There should be an understanding that [productivity] doesn’t mean you have to attend every meeting, or the number of hours logged.
Employers should be cognisant of the mental health fallout stemming from the pandemic in general and “check in more often [and] have mental health resources available,” said Val Lopez, a partner at executive recruiting firm Hanold Associates.
“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 will need to overhaul their expectations for employees, and adjust 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.”
Flexibility Pays Dividends
When Blushington launched its virtual classes last year, executives expected to attract mostly make-up artists looking to elevate their skills and launch freelance businesses. But the company also received many applications from women in industries like medical services and retail who were compelled by the pandemic to make a career change, said chief executive Natasha Cornstein.
“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 and many other industries.
Sometimes as working women, [our path] is not linear. We onboard and we off-board.
Both Burberry and Kering, for instance, expanded their maternity, paternity and adoption leave policies early 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 addressing obstacles women face in the workforce have only grown more important in the last year, especially in drawing back people who left 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?’”
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” that would help get women 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 for a return to the office. 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?’” said Argent founder and chief executive Sali Christeson.
The brands have promised to help reframe the “cultural narrative” around who is responsible for care and say they will rally investment in “innovative solutions to fix the caregiving crisis.” Last month, 75 of its members met with US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo via Zoom to push for federal investments in free or subsidised childcare, eldercare and care for people with disabilities.
In the private sector, 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.”