Stepping up to help the next generation of women make their mark in a post-COVID-19 world

10 May 2021 · 5 min read
How can female executives best counsel today’s students, new graduates, and entry-level professionals?

Written by

By Marian Salzman, Senior Vice President, Global Communications*, and Suzanne Rich Folsom, Senior Vice President and General Counsel


As summer approaches, we are thinking about the Class of 2021—the young women, especially—and how to help kickstart their careers.

We are also thinking more broadly about how this generation is reassessing its educational priorities and entry into the workforce.

As female executives, we have the breadth of experience to provide advice and support to young women as they step into this turbulent and uncharted world—and into a recession made especially deep for women by COVID-19. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 has added 36 years to the time remaining to close the gender gap. That’s an additional generation of women who will miss out on parity. Now is the time to take action to turn around this alarming trajectory.

Marian Salzman,
Senior Vice President, Global Communications*

Suzanne Rich Folsom,
Senior Vice President and General Counsel

A call to action

Recent news and research about the marginalization of women offer more than food for thought. In our view, these findings are a call to action—especially for those women who have earned their seat at the table within corporations, governments, multilateral organizations, and other entities.

We have a unique ability—a duty, even—to help subsequent generations find their voices, activate their power, and unleash their potential, despite the odds that continue to be stacked against them.

The world is reeling from the pandemic. Those coming of age during this crisis have lost out on so many of the markers and traditions of young adulthood—from campus living and study-abroad opportunities to first jobs and internships in physical work environments. The list is endless.

There is increasing worry, too, about whether an online “pandemic degree” or a sluggish “pandemic start” to one’s career will depress future earnings.

As women and as executives, we need to consider whether our successes and the lessons we have learned are relevant to those navigating a period of social change at least as vast as that experienced by the ’68-ers in France and those who came of age in the tumultuous 1970s in the U.S.

Common ground and common purpose

The two of us have much in common. We both graduated from highly competitive universities, paid our dues in the ’80s and ’90s, and worked globally and in the U.S. to rise to the top of our respective professions.

We are both workhorses, groomed in a male-dominated American work ethic that demanded a 24/7/365 focus.

Having succeeded in this environment, we now sit in adjacent offices at a Fortune 500 multinational, often shaking our heads in agreement and bewilderment as the world turns around and upside down.

We are old enough to assume we have some answers and realistic enough to know we have many more questions about how best to support inclusion and equity. The opportunities we have enjoyed are real, but so are the bruises we accumulated earning our place at the table. We understand that young women have every right to ask us: Was it worth it?

The waxing and waning of women’s progress

We have witnessed the sacrifices (and contributions) women have made to succeed in most professions, but we now find ourselves questioning the assumptions we made on academic campuses decades ago.

Will women—especially women of color—ever truly attain equity within the workplace? Is corporate success even a worthy aspiration for ambitious young women under the current parameters and customs—or should they be setting their sights, from the outset, on disrupting the systems they are keen to enter? How can they ensure they receive value commensurate with what they inject into an organization?

Those of us who came of age in the “women’s lib” era of the ’70s had every reason to think workplace equality was within our grasp. What we now know is that women’s progress waxes and wanes. We hear about “mancessions”—when men disproportionately lose jobs during economic downturns—but far too little about “shecessions.”

Looking at the 2008 recession, for instance, men lost more jobs in the short term, but the impact on women—especially in leadership roles—was ultimately more severe.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, we saw the price women paid—even while being heralded as heroes—as they took the brunt of healthcare work, homeschooling, and childcare responsibilities during the pandemic.

On, Joan Michelson points to a MetLife study that found that 58 percent of U.S. women surveyed said this crisis has negatively impacted their careers because of the disproportionate burden placed on them at home. And the 2020 Women in the Workplace study from and McKinsey & Company found that at least one in four women were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the labor market entirely because of COVID-19.

The study’s authors call this an “emergency for corporate America,” concluding, “Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.” From our base in Europe, we can see that this is hardly a phenomenon unique to the U.S.

What can we do?

Within this context, how can female executives best counsel today’s students, new graduates, and entry-level professionals?

What can we do to support women at home so that the progress made by those with young children isn’t wiped out every time a crisis erupts? And vitally, how can we ensure that the unique voices and needs of women are incorporated into strategies to create a better post-pandemic future?

We must offer more than empathy, instead sharing practical advice and support that is relevant to the world into which young women are graduating. We have to work with even greater vigor to make it possible for the next generation of female leaders to fully benefit from the lessons we have learned—and build upon them. Change must start with us—with senior women who are best positioned to make a meaningful difference. We owe it to the next generation of women to step up and take an active role to help them navigate through today—and whatever tomorrow may bring.

* On January 1, 2024, Marian Salzman was appointed Senior Vice President & Chief Corporate Citizenship Officer.