Teresa Tanner Wants to Keep Women Working

The former Fifth Third executive is focused on keeping women in the workforce through her new initiative, Reserve Squad.

Photograph Courtesy of Teresa Tanner

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on working mothers. But it’s also sparking conversations about another widespread issue that began simmering long before the pandemic began: a so-called “she-cession.”

Last year alone, more than 2 million women dropped out of the workforce. Nearly 80 percent of workers over age 20 who left the workforce in January were women, bringing total female labor force participation to its lowest point since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center. “People are calling [this] a national emergency,” says Teresa Tanner, former chief administrative officer at Fifth Third Bank. “OK. What are we going to do about it?”

Tanner has one solution: Reserve Squad.

Tanner describes the initiative, which she started in October 2020, as “building a new corporate structure around insourced gig work.” Here’s how it would work: Reserve Squad partners with corporations to create a new class of workers known as “reservists”—existing employees who can’t work full- or part-time. Instead of resigning, reservists are managed by a Reserve Squad workforce manager who keeps them up to date on available projects and required skills. If the company needs contract work, it employs the reservists instead of external freelancers. Reserve Squad is still looking for its first partner, though Tanner says she’s “in conversation” with a handful of mid-to-large Fortune 500 companies and hopes to have a beta client by the end of the year.

The model is a win-win, according to Tanner. Unlike freelancers, reservists are already familiar with the work, which contributes to greater productivity for the company. Meanwhile, reservist status gives employees flexibility. Anyone can be a reservist, but Reserve Squad focuses primarily on women, who are expected to take on childrearing and household responsibilities more often than men.

Although women graduate from college at higher rates than men, they’re disproportionately more likely to leave the workforce, says Tanner. Because these women often leave to raise children, they are not actively seeking a job and therefore aren’t represented in unemployment numbers. Tanner notes that several million educated, experienced women are currently off track. And with gaps in their résumés, these women often return to the labor force with outdated skills and outdated confidence, which can leave them “underemployed, underpaid, and underutilized,” Tanner says. “I’m seeking to change that.”

Photograph Courtesy of Teresa Tanner

Tanner can’t put her finger on the exact point in her life she became passionate about gender issues. Like 81 percent of women, she has experienced sexual harassment. She witnessed pay raise conversations that favored men with stay-at-home wives over women whose husbands also worked, despite claims that raises were performance-based. As a mother of two children, Tanner understands the struggles working mothers face: the 6 o’clock meeting that overlaps with daycare closures or the last-minute business trip that might only affect her as the sole woman on the team.

“There’s been time and time again where I felt that it has been an oppressive and unfair playing ground for women. And that makes me mad,” Tanner says. “We need to do better.”

In 2004, she joined Fifth Third Bank, where she rose to chief human resource officer and, later, chief administrative officer. In those roles, Tanner launched the “Women in Leadership” program, which fostered C-suite potential in female employees. And she innovated a maternity concierge program, which provided expectant mothers at Fifth Third a personal concierge from the time they found out they were pregnant to when the baby was a year old.

The concierge program illustrated the pressures working mothers face. Before the concierge program, women in their first year after maternity leave left Fifth Third at twice the rate as women not coming off a maternity leave, Tanner explains. The concierge program reduced the number of new mothers who left the bank six months after leave by almost 25 percent.

“You know what that tells me? [Twenty-five] percent of those women didn’t want to leave,” Tanner says. “They felt like they had to.”

Despite the progress she was leading at Fifth Third, Tanner wanted to spearhead solutions outside of just one company. So in 2019, she left her corporate job for a chance to tackle that work.

“There’s been time and time again where I felt that it has been an oppressive and unfair playing ground for women. And that makes me mad,” Tanner says. “We need to do better.”

Two years later, on Equal Pay Day, Tanner sits in her Reserve Squad office in Hyde Park. The walls are decorated with colorful branding—“anti-camo,” Tanner calls it, “to encourage women to be bold and stand out.” She speaks with passion about Reserve Squad’s recent developments and goals.

Tanner’s staff includes nine seasoned female professionals, all of whom personally connect with Reserve Squad’s mission. As she and her team work to secure partner companies, Tanner ultimately sees Reserve Squad as a national solution.

And she believes she has the passion to make it happen. “I left corporate America because I want to fight for gender parity every day I wake up,” she says. “I want to create a world where everybody has truly equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.”

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