Enabling Frontline Women to Thrive: Catalyst and Accenture Reveal Crucial Workplace Improvements

A new report from Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes gender equity and workplace inclusion, analyzed interviews with women in frontline workforce roles and their direct managers in retail, hospitality and manufacturing and found that “an imbalance between the needs of women in these roles and the facilities, policies and systems their employers provide,” said Jill Standish, senior managing director and global retail lead at Accenture.

Catalyst conducted the research in partnership with Accenture.

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Authors of the report said the results “reveal that women in the United States working in frontline roles need more respectful and rewarding workplace experiences that value their life circumstances, health, well-being and talent.”

“Women in frontline roles are essential to the daily operations of many of the world’s largest companies,” said Lorraine Hariton, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst. “They were also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and still feel its effects. Companies have told us that attracting and retaining women in the frontline workforce is a priority. And women’s voices, well-being and contributions must be central to these efforts. Building respectful and rewarding workplaces of all kinds is at the core of this report and Catalyst’s broadened focus on women in frontline roles.”

The report, titled “Women on the Front Line: Enabling Them to Thrive, Stay and Perform,” found that women frontline workers and their direct managers said frontline women’s physical needs, safety and well-being “are often unacknowledged or ignored.” They feel that scheduling policies are rigid “and practices often overlook or ignore the needs of women, who are disproportionately responsible for caregiving.”

The report noted that career advancement pathways are not clear or accessible. The report also stated that “direct managers need to be allowed to make team-level decisions guided by empathy” while also noting that amid labor shortages and high burnout and attrition rates in the frontline workforce, “companies must invest in the physical well-being of women, employee-centered scheduling practices, clear growth and advancement opportunities, and empathic frontline management to create environments that attract and retain frontline women.”

Standish said that fostering “a culture of equality and diversity — where everyone feels their safety is a priority, that they are seen and heard, and that they can learn and advance — is not only the responsibility of every organization today, but also a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth. It is critical that organizations across retail, hospitality and manufacturing reimagine how women in frontline roles experience their work.”

She went on to say that the good news “is that a wide range of digital technologies can contribute to advancing more flexible and meaningful workplaces — everything from providing employees with wellness exercises and healthy eating guidance that promote well-being to enabling remote scheduling of shifts for more desirable work patterns — helping these essential women build more rewarding careers.”

Standish told WWD that frontline jobs “are some of the most important — and toughest — out there. In the U.S., Catalyst estimates that nearly 70 percent of the workforce is estimated to be frontline. Catalyst defines this as roles that are directly involved in production, processing and service delivery in non-office settings that typically don’t require higher education qualifications.” Regarding the challenges faced, Standish noted that in these jobs, “employees are required to work in person at a specific physical location, for example, a factory, hotel, store or restaurant. Shifts may be set or variable and often include hours outside the typical Monday to Friday working week.”

But there are other challenges.

Standish said women in frontline roles that were polled said they do not have access “to proper break spaces, locker rooms or designated employee bathrooms in worksites such as restaurants, lodging properties or entertainment facilities” and added that they are often given “ill-fitting or uncomfortable uniforms that add up to physical pressure of the work.” Other issues include working in worksites “that are not properly equipped with security tools and exposure to threats of sexual harassment from both customers and colleagues to name a few.”

“Consider retail or hospitality, in particular, where schedules can be very volatile and unpredictable which not only lead to work-life challenges but also income instability for women,” Standish told WWD. “Shifts get canceled if business is slower than expected, employees can be assigned to ‘on-call’ shifts, and schedules may be announced as late as the night before.”

The research identified four key steps that companies can take to create respectful and rewarding workplaces that engage, support and retain women frontline workers. This includes investing in their physical well-being and adopting employee-centered scheduling practices.

“Companies must remove sources of instability, unpredictability and rigidity from scheduling systems to account for women’s lives outside work, the report’s authors said while added that companies need to create and clarify growth opportunities.” Companies must clearly communicate well-structured opportunities for growth and advancement designed to meet women’s needs.”

And finally, the report recommends that managers should be enabled to lead empathically.” Company leaders should enable managers of frontline employees to create positive environments so that employees feel valued, supported and connected,” the report stated.

“Despite the significant role they play in our economy, retail workers are still often undervalued and underappreciated,” Standish said. “Let’s not forget they were on the front line during the pandemic, keeping economies running by ensuring essential goods and services were available to the public. They kept shelves stocked, helped customers navigate safety protocols and maintained a sense of normalcy during an incredibly challenging time. It’s important we all acknowledge their dedication, just as we did for medical professionals.”

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