What Leaders Must Do to Keep Women in the Workforce, According to Ritual Founder Katerina Schneider

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The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the U.S. economy, and women — who are more likely to work in jobs vulnerable to virus risks and also disproportionately shoulder the weight of child care — are especially hard hit.

A recent "Women in the Workplace" report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to the impact of Covid-19. Already, nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and October this year, according to an analysis from the National Women's Law Center.

Katerina Schneider, CEO and founder of the vitamin maker Ritual, has felt the impact of the pandemic as a business leader, as well as a mom to three young daughters balancing work with household responsibilities.

"It's so personal to me," Schneider tells CNBC Make It. "It makes me incredibly emotional to read the statistics that women are four times more likely to drop out of the workforce than men."

Schneider herself briefly stepped away from work when she gave birth to her third daughter in May and took maternity leave for the first time. However, her family's income took a hit after her husband had to scale back and sell his business travel start-up due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.

She worries a persistent wage gap will force other women in opposite-sex and dual-income households to leave work out of economic necessity. Currently, the average woman earns $0.82 for every dollar earned by men. But, Black women, Native American women and Latinas earn $0.62, $0.60 and $0.55, respectively, for every dollar earned by White men. 

"If a woman is making less than a man, it means the man's career is going to be favored," Schneider says. "Even if pay is the same, women are taking on more household duties."

Being a woman and mom has "had a profound impact of how I view things," Schneider says. Since she sent her team of 60-plus employees to work remotely in March, she rolled out new benefits including additional paid time off, schedule flexibility, a one-time $300 stipend for home-office costs and a monthly $200 stipend for parents to cover child-care costs. Following her own maternity leave, she decided to expand Ritual's current family leave policy (12 weeks of fully paid leave for all new parents) to also include transitional months for workers to re-enter the workspace following childbirth.

"Giving complete flexibility to working parents — especially working moms right now — is something all leaders should be doing," Schneider says.

"I love working. We have incredible moms at this company, and I want to make sure they feel supported on every level. So whether it's offering extra child care support where needed or allowing them to take days off unspoken, we've got to help women in the workforce through pandemic."

Increased employer support is 'not enough'

As a business leader, Schneider says she is committed to finding out what else she can offer employees in addition to flexible schedules, paid time off and financial assistance, but knows more must be done for working women overall: "I think a lot of things we're doing are helpful, but it's not enough."

Facebook's chief operating officer and Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg recently told CNBC Make It that, to better support women in the workplace, company leaders must not only do a better job at promoting, mentoring and sponsoring women, but they also need to do a better job at understanding the pressures women are facing during this unique time. 

"We have to recognize that what was possible when your kids were going to school outside the home is not possible when your kids are in school in the home," she says. "We think companies should re-set goals. We think companies should extend deadlines and we think companies should reflect this in their performance."

Beyond employer responsibilities, policy advocates say legislators must act to address a child-care crisis that's only gotten worse during the pandemic. In the short-term, supporters say a federal child-care relief package must be passed to help child-care businesses stay afloat during the pandemic and help employees of these business, who are predominantly women, stay financially secure. Long-term, national policies that support lower child-care costs, paid time off for new parents and access to universal pre-K can help women stay in the workforce.

Schneider adds that something business leaders can do, which she doesn't see much among her peers, is to solicit feedback through anonymous employee surveys to gauge what they really need to feel supported in their careers while they work from home. Engaging employees has helped Schneider figure out how to lead during the pandemic. "In the beginning, I definitely felt a pressure as CEO to have all the answers," Schneider says. "You always feel like you have to have clarity when no one else does."

As a result of the surveys, Ritual added new employee benefits and programs, including access to teletherapy through free TalkSpace memberships for employees and their family members. Schneider also stays on the pulse of how people are feeling about working remotely in general, and how they view the outlook of their health company.

"Emotions come in waves, and you can never get too comfortable as leadership or as a company with how things are going. It's just constantly changing," Schneider says. "So how do we evolve to support people mentally and physically in every single way during this time?"

Schneider says being vulnerable, empathetic and most of all proactive can help leaders consider how to fully support their women workers. She gives an example of when her team once asked an employee to participate in a video shoot, and in doing so, required her to find additional child care. Schneider and other leaders didn't realize timing was an issue until after the fact and says it would have been a good opportunity to help the employee pay for extra child care or do more to work around her schedule.

Now that Schneider is back at work full-time, she's open about the fact that the workday looks different for a lot of employees, especially parents. "I bring my baby on calls for work and try to normalize that for other parents during this time," she says. "I try to say, 'Hey, it's OK to have your kids in the background — this is the new reality.'"

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