The pandemic and recession are making life difficult for employees across all industries, but women have felt the greatest impact. Moving forward, it will be critical to help women recover from the effects of COVID-19. According to CNN, the U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December — all of them held by women.

This discrepancy is due to long-standing genderism in America. This is evidenced by the wage gap, the differing expectations placed on men and women, and well-established cultural norms. Men are promoted more often than women, and women are more likely to sacrifice their careers for their families. Plus, according to pre-pandemic data, women take on more household duties and childcare responsibilities.

These issues were present before COVID-19, but the pandemic brought them into full focus. Quite a few women had their hours cut, and many mothers left the workforce entirely or switched to part-time jobs so they could handle the demands of online schooling and childcare. And if women later rejoin the workforce, they’ll likely face an 18% decrease in earnings. There isn’t a simple solution, but leaders can support women and work toward creating more equitable company cultures.

A Long-Term Concern

A male colleague I worked with once said, “I could never do my wife’s job as a stay-at-home mom in a million years. For me, working is the greatest gift.”

Our culture undervalues stay-at-home parents, but the responsibility of raising human beings and future leaders shouldn’t be taken lightly. We know that when children are loved, supported, and raised in a healthy environment, it affects everything — including their health, educational outcomes, and their eventual contributions to society. No small task!

However, this responsibility falls disproportionately on women — regardless of whether they’re working. And on top of that, women regularly battle no-win double standards: Women who choose to be SAHMs are perceived as lacking ambition, and women who choose to continue full-time careers are judged for not being more present with their children. Meanwhile, men consistently escape this scrutiny.

When women want to reenter the workforce (after taking time away due to staying home with children, the pandemic, etc.), they face an uphill battle. Employers see résumé gaps as a red flag, making it harder for women to compete against candidates who have an uninterrupted employment history. And if the employer has (even unconscious) gender bias, those beliefs could be strengthened by a comment like, “I stopped working during the pandemic.”

How to Support Women

As a leader, you have to be willing to ask more questions and take into account what women are going through. This applies whether you’re hiring a new team or managing existing employees. Here are three ways you can help support women, particularly during challenging times:

1. Proactively pinpoint ways you can help.

Ask women what they need, but don’t add to their mental load by forcing them to give you a to-do list. Instead, take it on yourself to get to the root of the issue. Dig deeper, find out what their pain points are, and figure out how you can help.

For instance, if you notice an employee struggling with communication, you could ask what channel works best for her. Would she prefer Slack chats, video calls, or emails? By noticing the problem and taking the initiative to solve it, you relieve some of the pressure. Just don’t assume that what works for one individual is the standard answer for all women.

2. Be more flexible.

Now that many women are working from home full time, it’s important that you revisit employee schedules and expectations. Telecommuting parents are also acting as teachers and stay-at-home parents. Try offering flexible working hours and relaxing meeting requirements as long as business goals are being met.

Remember: All of your employees are watching how you treat those under duress. How you treat one group is how you treat everyone. The more understanding you can be in these real-life situations, the more you’ll strengthen your company culture. Leeway today turns into loyalty tomorrow.

3. Prioritize emotional intelligence.

There are innumerable benefits to being empathetic, compassionate, and aware. Studies show that employees who feel valued and supported will ultimately give back more to their companies in terms of time and effort.

It benefits everyone when you are communicative and supportive. Tell your employees that you know things are difficult — and be willing to truly listen. The more you assume the best in people and arrive at solutions together, the more you’ll improve rapport and morale within your company.

The burdens of the past year have taken a toll on all of us. As a leader, you have the power to address bias, combat double standards, and let your employees know that they are seen and valued.