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Creating a Workplace that Supports Women and Gender Equity

Teresa Tanner | Founder & CEO, Reserve Squad

Teresa Tanner wakes up on a mission every day as the CEO and Founder of Reserve Squad. Seeking to disrupt traditional company models, Reserve Squad helps companies retain employees who pause their careers to take care of family or other obligations. 

“We’ve lost about two and a half million women from the workforce,” she says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are at the lowest workforce participation rate that we’ve been in 33 years, so basically, my entire career has been wiped out for this pandemic.”

Throughout her time in the corporate world, including experiences at McDonald’s and Fifth Third Bank, Teresa knew that she had to position herself differently and overcome barriers many of her male co-workers did not face. 

On this episode of Human Resolve, Teresa explains the value of leading with empathy and taking a human-first approach to management.

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Meet Teresa Tanner

Teresa J. Tanner is Founder and CEO of Reserve Squad, a talent solution designed to preserve a company’s professional female workforce through a new, innovative work model. Formerly Chief Administrative Officer with Fifth Third Bank, Tanner spent nearly 30 years in corporate America, where she worked to deliver innovative benefits to help women succeed in the workplace and at home. A seasoned C-suite executive, Tanner is known for her diverse skill set, ability to drive employee and customer loyalty, and as a national thought-leader on gender parity in the workplace.

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Show Notes

Ever since Teresa Tanner entered the workforce at the age of 16, she knew things were different for women. 

This understanding led her to found Reserve Squad, a business that helps companies retain employees who pause their careers to take care of family or other obligations. 

“We’ve lost about two and a half million women from the workforce,” Teresa says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are at the lowest workforce participation rate that we’ve been in 33 years, so basically, my entire career has been wiped out for this pandemic.”

Teresa started her career at McDonald’s, where her higher-ups told her they wanted her to take on an HR role. She was wary. As an operations manager, Teresa thought HR was administrative, bureaucratic and, at times, a barrier. She agreed to do it for a couple years, saying she eventually wanted to go back to operations. 

Spoiler: Teresa never went back to operations. Following her time at McDonald’s, she went on to join Fifth Third Bank as an HR leader, eventually rising to the C-suite. 

Throughout her career, Teresa knew that she had to position herself differently and overcome barriers many of her male co-workers did not face. 

“As we look forward 10, 20, 30 years, what are the things that we can do today to change some of those outcomes? Some of these barriers have been in place for for many, many decades, and we have to think differently if we want to pivot away from that,” she says. 

Teresa’s experiences over the years, including a shooting at Fifth Third and the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted for her the importance of a human-first approach to management. As companies move forward from the pandemic, she explains why leading with empathy is a must.

Notable Quotes

Reflecting on being a women in the workplace

“The minute I entered the workforce, I understood that things were different for women. It was just so obvious in so many different ways. Whether it was the unconscious bias, whether it was the overt sexual harassment, and things like that, the language and things you were exposed to in the in the work environment, you noticed it right away. I’ve known my entire career that as a woman, I needed to be aware of things. I needed to posture things differently. I needed to position myself differently. I needed to overcome certain barriers that other people didn’t have, so it was very obvious even at a very young age, and I saw it manifest over my career in a lot of different ways.”

Giving employees a space to speak up

“We have to lead with empathy. We have to really sometimes just take our business hats off and connect as humans, and we have to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to sit with them, hold space with them and listen. I think going back to the shooting, that’s what we tried to do when there were so many employees that were afraid. I mean, this happened in the lobby in which people swipe their badges and come into work every day, and we had so many employees that were just so afraid to re-enter that space. And there were no words, nothing we could say, to inspire them to fix it. There’s no policy we could put in place, and so we just held space.”

Evolving work policies after COVID-19

“I think that as employers, we just need to take time instead of saying, ‘OK, here’s our new flexible work policies’ — right, that’s the easiest place to go — is make sure we’re listening to our employees and saying, ‘What do you need?’ and creating that space for them to speak and then leading with empathy, and I’m encouraging people all the time. Everybody’s rushing back with their plans to get back to work, and how you’re going to do hybrid, and how you’re going to do vaccines, and whether you’re going to have masks and distancing. All of those are important elements. But, don’t rush to that without really listening with empathy to what your employees need. Because if we do, we are going to rush past and people aren’t OK yet, and infrastructure isn’t back yet, and we have an opportunity to lead in a human way that really meets the needs of our people.”

If you’re going to be flexible, adjust performance reviews to match

“This is a huge effect and impact on women. So I worry that even as the jobs start coming back, the infrastructure for women is not going to be back, and so disproportionately more men are going to be taking those jobs. Then for companies even that are offering these flexible work arrangements — which I love, and I’m encouraging companies to do — we have to be careful that there’s not an unintended consequence around how performance is viewed and access to promotions and access to special projects and visibility. We already knew that that was a problem with women before the pandemic. This could get accelerated. So we have to really be aware of what’s happening. What will be the long-term tail consequences of this pandemic? So many people think, ‘OK, we’re gonna get vaccines, and everybody’s back to normal, CDC restrictions are lifted, we’re cool.’ We’re not. There are long trailing impacts.”

Recognizing the changing work environment post-pandemic

“We are built to manage employee engagement and manage culture and feeling of belonging. We are built to manage that in a very onsite type of work environment. I don’t think we’re ever going to go fully back to that. I feel like 2020 has forever changed that employer and employee expectation around office hours, remote work. Well, how are we going to shift to do that? We can only figure those things out by really looking at the data and seeing how our new policies are affecting diversity and then listening to our employees.”

How structural policies play into equality

“I think from a corporate perspective, we’re constantly working on unconscious bias, which is good, we need it, and there is a lot of that going on. But there’s also just structural things that get in the way from women being able to be successful, and one of these is how work is structured. We have been working in this traditional framework of kind of part-time or full-time schedules for over 100 years, and there are times where women want to stay engaged, they want to stay contributing, but they need more control of how, where and when that happens, and we just don’t have structures for that.”

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