The Catalyze podcast: What women want at work and what companies can do to reduce the gender gap in the post-pandemic workforce, with Ursula Dimmling Mead ’02 and Anna Pickens ’23 of InHerSight
Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of women have dropped out of the workforce, and many have yet to rejoin.
Ursula Dimmling Mead ’02 has been studying what women want at work for the bulk of her career. She built a tool to help women make data-informed decisions about where to apply (and where to avoid applying).
Ursula is the founder and CEO of InHerSight, the largest company-reviews platform for women. The alumna joined Catalyze to share how the pandemic has changed the ways in which women seek and conduct work, how companies can become more women-friendly and attract female talent, and strategies for women to find their best workplace fit.
Catalyze is also joined by Anna Pickens ’23, who interned at InHerSight during summer 2021.
This episode features songs by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul, and Nicholas Byrne ’19 of Arts + Crafts.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ursula and Anna, thank you both so much for joining us.
Thanks for having us, Sarah. We’re excited to be here.
Thank you for having us. Yes, same, very excited.
Anna, I was so glad that you reached out to Morehead-Cain to share about your internship, which then led me to see Ursula’s work. I saw that it’s now been seven years since InHerSight was founded. You launched back in 2014.
Ursula, first, I’d love to hear from you: what was the impetus to starting the company? What kinds of problems or issues were you looking at that really inspired you to get this going?
It really was the result of a series of experiences and conversations and realizations that I was having at a time of my life where I was a relatively new mom, and I was working in financial tech, and I was really switched on to the conversations that were then just emerging about women in the workplace and the challenges that women faced finding supportive companies and employers, as well as the strong business case for gender diversity.
Today, I think it’s hard to remember when this conversation was just quiet and just emerging back in, really, the 2012, 2013 time period with early voices for this latest wave, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who had come out with a very impactful piece in the Atlantic, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
It was leaders like her, and voices like hers, that got me interested in this topic and really made me start to think about what I was hearing from women in my own life—from friends, from neighbors, from family members—about what they were experiencing at work, what support they were getting, and what was still lacking.
I had friends at that time who were on their maternity leaves as well, who were having vastly different experiences than me. I was at a wonderful company where I got a lot of support as a new mom and a lot of great paid parental leave benefits, and I was hearing stories where that was vastly different.
Similarly, I had friends and neighbors who were talking about their experiences being passed over for management roles or who were experiencing different forms of bias or what they felt were not equal opportunities. And that’s when I really started to dig in to the data and really start to explore it and try to understand what was happening for working women, and how had progress been advancing so far, and what work still needed to be done, and why?
And what I realized was really two things. I realized that there really were still major obstacles in the United States for women at work, whether we’re talking about advancement or we’re talking about support for family growth or safety and security, so across a lot of different aspects of what’s important to us.
But I also was finding that there were increasing tailwinds to support this talent segment. Women are 50 percent of the workforce. They improve business performance. All of these reasons why companies want, and need, to support women better were growing in importance and awareness.
And so I spent a long time exploring what were the solutions to advance gender equality for women at work? Why weren’t they working? Why did we still have these issues? And trying to figure out what solution I thought would work best in today’s environment. And that’s how InHerSight started.
It sounds like you were hearing a lot of anecdotal stories from people you knew that then you investigated to really see what data shares. And, of course, an app like InHerSight, a company like InHerSight, needs a lot of data. At what point did you know that you had a critical mass to deliver a successful product?
That’s a great question. Data is the backbone of the platform and the backbone of our “model for change.” And just to give a little bit more clarity around that, the way that the site works is that women come to InHerSight, and they rate their employers across a suite of categories and metrics that are important to women at different stages of their lives and careers.
And then we take all of that data and insight that women share about their experiences, and we use it to match women to companies that have what they’re looking for, and we also use it to help companies understand what’s working, what needs improvement, and what are opportunities for them when it comes to either meeting their recruiting goals or retaining the women that they are already employing.
So, for our site to be useful, it means that we need a lot of data so we can get strong signals for a lot of companies. And today we have data for more than 150,000 companies in the United States, and we have tens of millions of data points about women’s experiences at work.
And, of course, today it’s easy for us to say we definitely have enough data to be providing the kinds of tools and resources but early on, that was something that we thought very carefully about and that we focused very heavily on, which was making sure that we populated the platform with the data and the insights that are needed for women to make these decisions and to use our site as their go-to resource for understanding company cultures and knowing if they were the right fit.
We looked at that data and we’ve measured it, and we focused on it, and at a certain point, we started to see trends behind when women would feel confident using a scorecard to make decisions, and when we would start to see stabilization in the scores that companies were receiving when we started to see things like strong signals because there would be less and less variants as scores would grow over time for a particular company. And it was signals like that that we would look forward to decide when we could introduce new tools and new features and start to use our data in different ways.
But we still have a super high priority on the data we collect because our site becomes more and more valuable and more and more powerful as that data set grows, both as a tool for women but also as a tool for companies that are trying to understand what’s happening with the women at their companies.
Talk us through how InHerSight does define what is the “best” kind of company for women? What variables determine what makes one more favorable than others, and, related to that, how would you answer what does seem to make women generally happy at work and what factors, conversely, contribute to the most dissatisfaction or burnout?
Today, there are eighteen different factors that we measure on InHerSight. When we started, we had, I think it was about twelve that we launched with, and all of our initial twelve categories were based on a lot of academic research that we had done on the topic of gender equality and what matters to women.
And then we started to take that out to thousands of our beta users and start to get feedback from them on which of these factors were important, which ones they had an easy time evaluating, a harder time evaluating, which ones were missing that they wanted to either share experiences on or hear others’ experiences around.
And we did a lot of person-to-person research like that, everything from individual conversations to watching users’ behavior and how they were getting through different flows and how quickly they could answer different things to help us understand which factors mattered and which ones were missing that we needed to add.
This type of research into what's important to women is work that we continue to do all the time. In fact, I mentioned that we have 18 categories today, and we didn’t start with that many. That’s because we’re always listening to women, whether it’s through surveys and polls or focus groups or news headlines.
And we’re listening to the conversation about women and work and making sure that our data is the most relevant and the most authentic data that we can provide about women’s experiences based on that. So it’s an evolving process for us.
As you might imagine, in 2017, around the Me, Too movement, for example, we introduced a new category around employer responsiveness, and that category measures how satisfied women are with their ability to escalate issues that are concerning to them and how satisfied they are with the responsiveness of their employers when they do escalate those issues. Do those channels exist and how well do companies respond when issues are brought to their attention? That’s an example of a later data point that we added, a later category in response to changing needs or emerging conversations.
After Black Lives Matter last summer (2020), we conducted a long series of focus groups with women from all different backgrounds and industries and from different demographic groups. And you can imagine we updated the product again to include more categories that are increasingly important to not just women, but talent in general as they’re evaluating companies commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This is something that we work on all the time, and it’s an ongoing project for us which is trying to understand what are the most pressing areas for women and making sure that it’s very comprehensive because a great company for me is also going to be different from a great company for Anna, for example. We’re all looking for different things from companies. We have different needs at different stages of our lives and careers, and it’s really important that our platform is inclusive, it’s intersectional, and it stays up-to-date with the issues that are top of mind for women.
It sounds like what the company is doing and what you’re speaking to is this idea of intersectional policies that would support women in very different roles and women of many different backgrounds.
Anna, as a writer for InHerSight this summer, would you mind sharing what you’re researching and perhaps any surprises or takeaways, what sort of questions are you asking that you hope your research can help reveal?
The biggest thing that’s really surprised me about the research so far is actually something I learned from Ursula when I was first going through the interview process for the internship. Before I started working at InHerSight, I assumed that the pandemic had been helping working mothers because working from home meant that they have more time with their families and more time to balance work and home life.
But that’s actually really not the case for many women, and that’s something I’ve been interested in focusing on and learning just a lot more about. The truth is, the pandemic has really harmed a lot of working women, not just because companies in general have struggled during the pandemic, but also because moms have just been taking on a lot of childcare responsibilities at home.
And I think that’s something that’s not really being talked enough about because, in addition to working forty-hours-plus work weeks, there are so many responsibilities that mothers who are trying to work are dealing with, like helping children with online school or managing child care because of closed down daycares.
The pandemic is a really weird time, obviously, for everyone. But I do think that it reflects societal norms that exist even when we return to quote, unquote, “normal life”.
I recently did some research for an article about burnout at work, and something I’ve realized is that working women are still contributing around 37 percent more time or around 14 extra hours every week to housework in comparison to their male partners, who are also working.
And so even though, as Ursula said, women make up around half of the workforce now, there are clearly some deeply ingrained societal ideas about gender expectations and division of labor in the home, and those expectations are majorly impacting women who are trying to pursue their careers, especially if they’re also interested in having a family.
I really think the first step to fixing those problems and others like those are having conversations. And so I’m really glad that InHerSight gives people a platform to learn more about those kinds of issues, because these are issues that are really relevant to men, too, because they have a role in promoting equality.
And that’s just one area of research that I focused on recently. There are all kinds of others, but that was one that I found particularly surprising.
Thank you so much for sharing that. And yeah, it definitely seemed like these problems existed before or the structures weren’t in place to support women properly for something of this scale to happen. Ursula, this might be more of a question for you: how do you think that InHerSight will use these insights? Will that turn into the ever-evolving categories that women can use to rate companies or how will the company apply this sort of research?
The pandemic really has had a huge impact on women across a lot of different areas. I love to hear Anna talking about working moms and understanding just what a year it has been for that segment of the workforce and how difficult it’s been. I know now we’re seeing still that women who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic are returning to work at slower rates. In fact, in many cases, some are still leaving work because as things return to that “normal,” the policies are not supportive enough for them at this transitional stage, as they’re trying to still work their way out of some of the challenges that the pandemic has caused.
But we are in a really interesting position where we’re always listening to women and asking them these important questions about things like the distribution of care and work in their homes, to things like how they’re able to get their voices heard and still feel like they have a seat at the table when they’re working remotely to what kinds of support and benefits are most important to them now as they’re evaluating companies going forward.
And we’re in this great position, I say, because it’s not just a time where our platform can be really useful but where we, as a growing company, get to hear all of these insights and internalize them and build them into our own culture as we grow.
I think back pre-pandemic . . . I was very much the type of employee and leader that felt like the best work was always done in the office. And I love being in the office and collaborating in person and watching ideas evolve and innovation happen in real time. It’s a very fun and energizing and, in many ways, an inclusive way to work, especially if you’re in a big open office environment and anyone can jump in on any conversation.
Transitioning to remote work for us, for example, was a bit of a challenge, and it’s been a big difference. And there’s been a lot to learn. But getting to hear from women how important making remote work, work, right now is and how they’re facing some of these challenges around knowing if they’re being included in particular meetings and decision-making or even topics like how important mental health support is from employers. Right now, all this research that we do, we get to bring back and use in our own decision-making.
So, for example, for as much as I love in-person work, we will probably be some of the last to go back to the office and will probably keep an ongoing hybrid model, at the very least, to support the 80 percent of women who say they want to be working remotely post-pandemic some if not all of the time. That’s the kind of data and research that we conduct and we hear and we don’t ignore. We incorporate that into our own policies or, as I mentioned, wellness and wellbeing.
Right now, the number one thing women want from their employers from a benefits perspective when it comes to wellness, is mental health support, whether that is through meditation apps or subsidized therapy sessions or other ways to combat some of the stress and the burnout, as Anna mentioned that they’re experiencing.
So when we think about what are the ways we should be supporting our employees, we take that insight and we use it ourselves and we say, “Okay, well, let’s see if we can do more wellness initiatives or more half days or how do we create some of the opportunities for more time to refresh and rebuild for our people.” We really get to benefit during this time when we’re growing, and we care a lot about our people and our culture. For the research that we’re capturing for our employer partners, it’s just as important to us.
That’s great to hear how InHerSight is “walking the talk” and implementing the kinds of insights that you’ve been researching. Of course, a natural audience for InHerSight is also the companies you work with—not just the women who are rating these, but a natural extension would seem to be bringing this information for those who want to be more progressive. To what extent is scaling this data part of the trajectory of InHerSight?
This is a huge piece of what we do and to our “model for change”—using that data and those insights to bring them to companies, because our mission is really to improve the workplace for women by measuring that. And to do that, a piece of it is empowering women with the data they need to make better decisions about what companies they’re going to work for.
But another piece of that is empowering companies with the data they need to make progress on supporting women or stay ahead if they’re already a leader in that category and understand women’s changing and shifting needs over time.
We currently work with hundreds of companies on their recruiting efforts, where they’re trying to make sure that their talent pipelines are diversified and they have talent from underrepresented backgrounds applying to jobs across their organizations.
Right now, companies are struggling to figure out how to appeal to women in particular and how to show that they are committed, from a DEI perspective and from a benefits perspective, to supporting women. So that’s something that we help with on the talent attraction front.
But we also do a lot with external and internal benchmarking and using our data to really highlight where an individual company needs to focus its energy if it wants to make sure that the women stay at the company and can advance and feel supported within their culture.
Using that data to help companies change is hugely important to us, and we actually just are releasing a new product around that that will help our employer partners really make sure they have both a comprehensive listening system in place where they can make sure that they are staying ahead of what’s important to women and also so that they can have the measurement, have the benchmarking, have the comparisons that they need to actually make sure that they understand how they’re doing, not just today, but as they make changes, how it’s impacting their performance over time.
That seems especially important just because of the bias that women do experience. A woman might not feel comfortable sharing the things that are obstacles to her work if she feels like those could be used against her, of her performance. But then if that’s never shared about, then, of course, that will never be addressed, especially if it’s not expressed in mass, of a lot of people experiencing the same things.
Absolutely. There’s a lot of concern often from women with the safety of expressing their needs or their concerns or their hopes from a workplace. There’s a ton of internal surveying that happens at companies today. But according to our own research, most women don’t feel comfortable really being honest in those surveys because there’s fear of repercussions. And there is still a lot of that concern.
And with a platform like ours, we provide safety for expressing what you need and what you want. And we can be a really valuable third party who can get an even more accurate read on what women are going through and what they’re looking for.
And you sharing about this has made me think of a question for Anna and your experiences. You had to take classes remotely and are now doing at least partially a remote internship from the pandemic. I’m just curious if your thoughts have changed from what would be an ideal workplace for you one day and any other kinds of takeaways from working at InHerSight and seeing the kinds of decisions that women are making and the things that they encounter, how that’s changed your view of what would be a really positive environment to work?
The pandemic in general and taking remote classes and working remotely has changed a lot of things for me, because, interestingly enough, I’ve actually never had an internship in person, which is kind of funny because the pandemic hit when I was a freshman in college, and now I’m almost a junior. So, all of my experience with working in office environments has been pretty much entirely online. I really don’t have any experience in the physical office to compare this to.
But the pandemic in general has helped me to really reevaluate what matters to me in my life. And I’ve realized that although I really like working and my career is important to me, I’m just not willing to sacrifice my mental health to achieve success. And I actually think that’s something that a lot of people get wrong, to be honest. And I’ve seen this culture in business, among students, especially, and also among young working professionals, of almost bragging about how much they’re working or studying and how miserable their lives are.
They’ll say things like, oh, “I’m working eighty hours this week and I have to sleep at my desk tonight,” or, “Oh, I practically spent the night in the business school on Friday working on a project.” And when I first got to college before the pandemic, I was really confused by the sense of pressure that people were putting on themselves. But I almost felt myself buy into the idea that that is success, too. And so after COVID-19, success just really looks different for me. And that’s not to say that I’ll never pull an all-nighter or work crazy hours or that I judge people who want to live that way.
But I just don’t want that to be my norm. And I don’t want people to think that that’s what success has to be, particularly women in business. So success to me means having reasonable personal boundaries between work and my home life and prioritizing things that make life beautiful to me. So when thinking about what I want to do for work one day and where I want to work, I’m really just looking for somewhere that lets me strike that balance. And somewhere that values me as an individual but also expects quality work.
And InHerSight has actually helped me to realize that there really are companies that can give you that right balance where you know that you’re valued as a human being, but also that you’re doing really great things career wise and you’re impacting the community. And I think that moving forward, that’s really what I’m going to be looking for, and that’s what I’ve taken from this entire pandemic experience so far.
That’s really a valuable insight in how there’s kind of a glorification of hustling sometimes at the expense of mental health. Ursula, I would love to hear from you any advice that you have for female college students and even recent graduates of red flags they should be looking out for in their search process to be able to determine, “Okay, this is a really good place to work,” or “No, this does not really foster a great environment for women to really be able to thrive and to be treated equitably.”
I love to hear Anna’s reflections on what the pandemic has had her think about and had her realize about what she wants, because a lot of it really does start with that work, and it starts with knowing yourself and really trying to understand what will make you happy and what kinds of things you value and you find joy in, not just from a work tasks perspective, but that culture piece as well, whether it’s work life balance, as Anna mentioned, or something else.
When we look at our different factors and we look at their relationship to women’s happiness at work or unhappiness at work, because the factors that correlate with their happiness are also the ones that if they’re not right, are driving their dissatisfaction as well.
So when we look at that, I’d say the things that stand out are that when women are satisfied with these categories that we measure, they tend to be the happiest overall, and those are the perception of equal opportunities for women and men, the satisfaction with the outcomes when you report a problem—that’s employer responsiveness—they need to be satisfied with how respectful and unbiased their coworkers are, they want to see women in leadership—so knowing that they can rise through the ranks or seeing women who have done that, we know that’s so important—and then their salary satisfaction, so feeling that they are compensated fairly for the work that they’re doing. Those are the things that tend to drive and correlate with overall happiness at work.
Interestingly, we see, especially as people are just entering the workforce, some of the things that are what we would call “bread and butter benefits”: things like paid time off and flexible work hours. These are some of what we call popular choices of things that women tell us: “I want a company that has these things.” And those are important and, of course, having the flexibility to do what you want to do and take time to yourself, and all of that is really valuable.
But we often try to educate the women going through our match process and trying to evaluate companies on some of these satisfaction drivers because you may not think that you even need to be looking for a company that will respond if you encounter something like sexual harassment or a safety issue, you may not even consider that there might be environments where you don’t feel like you have access to equal opportunities, but in fact, these are really some of the things that are the strongest drivers of your overall experience. So that’s some of the work that we do, is trying to bring some of those findings to light and have more women keep an eye out for them, or at least know that if they realize later that they’re not getting that and they need it, they know they can use us to find it.
Lots of great guidance there. Ursula and Anna, thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything either of you would like to add or social media or anything else that you want to plug right now?
No. We’re so happy to have had this opportunity to chat. We would love for everyone to share their insights at https://www.inhersight.com to rate your experience with your employer to help more women find companies where they can succeed.
Yes, thank you so much for having us.