A recent McKinsey & Co. study found that women made up 46 percent of the U.S. work force before COVID-19 began to spread but 54 percent of the jobs lost in the pandemic. Women also have spent more time on family obligations, which may be a reason why they pull back from work, according to McKinsey.
Some female executives say it's important to keep the doors open to women who may have temporarily stepped back from their jobs out of necessity so that they can reengage with the workplace when the pandemic comes under control.
The regular face time that employees had in the office is no longer available, so keeping in contact via text message, email or phone call is important, said Ford's Drake.
"It's probably good guidance and counseling that we can start to give if they do want to take a step back in this environment," she said. "If they just make an effort to stay in touch very informally, they would be surprised how top of mind they will still be."
Several Leading Women honorees said their companies have gotten better at communicating with a remote work force during the pandemic.
But a key tool for that — video meetings — came up often as a barrier to achieving work-life balance. Specifically, several honorees noted the frequency of such meetings and how they lead to pushing off other tasks.
Some female leaders said their companies have blocked out time during which no meetings will be held. At dealership technology company DealerSocket, that day is Wednesday, CEO Sejal Pietrzak said. What started as a trial run likely will continue post-pandemic, she said.
The challenge mounts when meetings are global. The U.S. employees of Japanese automakers, for instance, have to account for the time difference when holding video calls, said Allyson Witherspoon, U.S. chief marketing officer for Nissan. One solution has been to block off two hours during the day with no Zoom meetings so employees can handle other things or build in time for a break, she said.
"There can't be a one-size-fits-all because everyone's going to have these different pressures, professional or personal, that are going to be impacting them," Witherspoon said. "What we've been trying to do is be as flexible as you can. We're trying to work with our headquarters to let them know that right now, this is unsustainable, and to make sure that work from home doesn't mean work 24 hours a day on Zoom calls."
Flexibility was a common theme among Leading Women honorees. Jennifer Johnson, CEO of Kendrick Plastics, said the auto industry already had given her experience responding as needed to business changes.
But, she added, "COVID took that to a whole other level because of the seriousness of, essentially, long-term health or life and death. The one thing I have learned — and I would say it's probably already changed me forever — is that you have a plan, but you still take that plan day by day and be very open-minded to adjust."
Hannah Lutz and Audrey LaForest contributed to this report.