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International Women’s Day: Women in HR Tech Have Their Say

It may be decades before we fully understand COVID-19’s ramifications on society and places of work — but data largely suggests the impact has been felt more acutely by working women.

Yessi Bello-Perez


International Women's Day

Unleash Your Curiosity In celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, we spoke to several women in the HR industry to get their take on progress in the sector.

  • Almost 82% of women said their lives had been negatively disrupted by COVID-19.
  • Nearly half of women say their career has been set back or put on hold due to the global pandemic.
  • Two in five have left or considered leaving the workforce during the past year.

It may be decades before we fully understand COVID-19’s impact on society and work — but data largely suggests the ramifications have been felt more acutely by working women.

According to a Deloitte survey of almost 400 working women across nine countries, almost 82% of women said their lives had been negatively disrupted by the pandemic.

More depressingly, nearly 70% who experienced the disruption said they were concerned about their career growth being limited as a result.

From attempting to manage homeschooling schedules and re-arranging their workdays to fill gaps in childcare, women are increasingly shouldering the responsibilities of looking after children during the pandemic.

According to a UrbanSitter survey covered by CNBC, some 53% of parents say mom is the main caregiver in the home. Less than a third of the almost 500 parents surveyed agreed that caring for children was evenly split among both parents.

Women are leaving the workforce

Another global study by LinkedIn, which surveyed over 20,000 working professionals, found that nearly half of women say their career has been set back or put on hold due to the global pandemic, and two in five have left or considered leaving the workforce during the past year.

Furthermore, LinkedIn data finds that on average women globally applied to 11% fewer jobs than men last year, and that women’s hiring has proven to be more vulnerable.

Speaking about the findings, Janine Chamberlin, Senior Director at LinkedIn, said: “It’s clear that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on women’s careers. Women have been more adversely affected by disruptions to the retail, travel, and leisure industries which employ a relatively greater share of women and often aren’t remote-ready roles. Our data also clearly shows women are applying to fewer roles and are also taking on a disproportionate share of care responsibilities.  

“Companies can play a major part in ensuring that we get back on track by implementing progressive workplace policies to offer greater flexibility to caregivers, carefully considering the language of jobs adverts and employer branding to encourage female applicants, and expanding talent pools to entice a broader spectrum of talent and skills, can make a big difference when it comes to hiring more women into the workplace.”

With this in mind, and in celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke with several high-profile women in the HR tech industry. We asked them about their careers so far, the challenges they’d faced over the past year, and how they are looking to empower working women post-pandemic. Here’s what they had to say.

Catalina Schveninger, Chief People Officer at FutureLearn

Schveninger joined the HR industry in 1999 and says she’s never looked back.

“I trained as a journalist so I guess my interviewing skills came in handy when I was ‘headhunted’ to be a headhunter,” she explains. “I’ve had many highlights, but the best moments have always been when members of my team or mentees of mine achieved amazing things and realized their career goals,” Schveninger adds.

“We need to showcase what great looks like in talent development, in other words drinking our own champagne as HR practitioners.”

Schveninger says both women and men need empowering. If work and life stuff’ gets equally distributed, everyone thrives. An example is the increased uptake of paternity policy. I’m so impressed whenever I travel to Scandinavia (when I used to travel:) and see as many dads as mums with pushchairs having lunch on a Tuesday.

“My husband decided to stay home and cut his working hours which was a huge boost for my career, having got a big promotion when I was pregnant with my son. We love a man who leans in,” she adds.

When asked what advice she’d give other women working in HR, Schveninger said: “Our super-powers: empathy, adaptability, perseverance came in handy in the past year and emphasized the positive impact women in organizations have in times of crisis.”

“HR as the function with people at the core did an outstanding job in supporting staff coping with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety. Women in HR should be feeling proud of the big role they play and feel more confident than ever about their abilities and potential,” she concludes.

Tanesha Carter, VP, HR Operations and Continuous Improvement at IKEA Group

Carter is a seasoned HR professional, having joined the industry in 2003 as a nurse recruiter.

“There have been many highlights that come to mind but one that sticks out to me the most is moving into my current role,” she tells UNLEASH.

“In this role, I’ve had the opportunity to build-up a new function in our organization. It has been exciting to lead change management to drive data-driven people decisions, automation and digitation, and work with process improvement models,” she adds.

Overall, Carter thinks the HR industry is becoming more inclusive but notes “we still have a long way to go.”

“When I look back over my years in the industry, I see far more inclusivity now than when I started in 2003. There is an opportunity to continue to elevate women in the industry; particularly within the analytics, tech, and the management space,” she notes.

“I’d like to remind women working in HR in 2021, how important it is to care of yourself.

“For many, 2021 has not slowed down from what we faced as an industry in 2020. Our industry and organizations are still continuing to adapt and are pushing the boundaries on what it means to be agile.

“The demands on our industry and, for many, working out of home offices, creates very little space to focus on our wellness. It is important for all of us to remember to take care of ourselves and to support each other.”

Carter is excited about the future of work and sees it as an opportunity to make it more inclusive:

“As we continue to define what the future of work is, I want to encourage women to evaluate what their new needs are and to feel empowered to not only communicate those needs but to also be empowered to explore new opportunities that may have not fit their needs before.

“The future of work will open up new remote opportunities and flexible arrangements, something that was not always available. Roles that were not flexible and remote will become flexible and will open new doors. I want to empower women to seek these new opportunities and help define what the future of work looks like,” she notes.

Gretchen Alarcon, VP and GM at ServiceNow

“I’ve had a 20+ year run in the HR industry, starting in HR and eventually moving into HR software,” Alarcon tells UNLEASH.

Due to her experience, Alarcon likes to say she lives in at the intersection of people and technology. “So much of what I do is interpreting tech for people and I love spending time thinking about how we can create technology that helps solve the challenges people face in their workday,” she adds.

Alarcon believes now is a good time to reflect on what’s happened over the past year. “Everyone has had a huge shock to the system, whether it’s in work or in your personal life. And not all of it has been bad. It’s important to take the time to think about what changed and the elements that made you stronger.”

“Now is the time to think about where HR and HR tech are headed. Listen to your employees and think about their needs as you choose the HR systems and processes to support your workforce.”

The pandemic has been tough on all but it’s also accentuated many of the challenges that parents have faced for years. “I remember feeling guilty about leaving at 2pm to pick up my kids from school years ago. I can only imagine how difficult it is to balance remote learning and work with the personal strains of the pandemic,” remembers Alarcon.  

As a leader, Alarcon says she tries to make sure each team member — parent or not — has a voice to address their challenges, concerns, setbacks, and successes.

“Just last week, my team participated in a coffee hour / happy hour where we talked through the ways in which we feel most supported at work.  It was interesting to hear people talk about how they’ve created space to step away and ask for help when needed. I always want my team to feel like they are heard – no matter what challenges they are facing,” she adds.

Emma Sinclair MBE, co-founder of EnterpriseAlumni

Sinclair says she’s been “walking the corridors of HR tech since 2014” when EnterpriseAlumni was still in its infancy.

Similarly to Carter, Sinclair says she’s enjoyed many highlights to date but she specifically recalls a 2015 SAP Conference in Florida when her co-founder and her won the SAP Pinnacle Award.

“I was invited to meet the then CEO Bill McDermott to talk about what we were building (and asked for a photo like a total nerd founder groupie) and our logo was on the main stage unexpectedly at the main event with 1,000s of people in the audience. I felt like we had well and truly arrived. I still have a million photos documenting it all!,” she remembers.

Today, Sinclair notes progress has been made in terms of inclusion but says the “pace is glacial.”

“There are lots of initiatives, groups, celebrations, courses, and resources but it is all too slow. That said, when I first started working diversity and inclusivity wasn’t even an agenda item so on the plus side, companies are now being watched and the days of all panels, boards, and management committees lacking diversity are coming to an end. It’s no longer acceptable,” she comments.

“I am looking to empower all women wherever they are, whoever they are, and as much as possible!”

On a more personal level, Sinclair says she will continue to connect interesting and ambitious women to each other to generate mutually beneficial support networks, business, and opportunities and pull women she knows into speaking and press opportunities whenever she is invited.

“We can genuinely all lift each other up,” she added.

Sheree Atcheson, Peakon’s Global Director of DE&I

Atcheson says this year’s International Women’s Day is more important than ever.

“The pandemic has undermined years of progress on gender issues and thrown us into a recession that could last for years to come.

“COVID-19 may be indiscriminate, but its impact has been disproportionately felt by women (and specifically women of color), who are more likely to have been laid off, furloughed, or managing additional caring responsibilities,” she adds.

“If business leaders really want to improve gender equality in the workplace, they need to consider the specific challenges faced by different groups of women.”

Atcheson says we need to avoid grouping all women together.

Women aren’t monolith, she adds. “They exist in all spaces which are complex intersections of race, sexuality, class, and countless other factors. Some women will have been impacted far worse by the pandemic than others. When we know that women are more likely to be made redundant, and we know that Black and Asian workers are too, what then does that mean for Black or Asian women?”

“As a society, we need to be far more aware of intersectionality and its impacts on women’s lived experiences and careers,” says the DE&I director.

“Frequently organizations introduce initiatives to improve gender equality. But unless these are specific in their aims, they’re likely to provide the most support to non-disabled, heterosexual, financially-privileged White women – those who need it least,” she concludes.

Looking ahead

We know the world of work has historically been harder for some women to navigate. The data also tells us women are struggling during the pandemic.

We have all the facts, now we just need to act. The pandemic has been devastating for millions of people all over the world, let’s take stock of the situation, figure out what we’ve been doing wrong, and try to do better.

Let’s use this opportunity to build more inclusive companies and workplace. Happy International Women’s Day!

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