The pandemic continues to drive women out of the workforce
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women across the world have experienced adverse effects driving them to leave the workforce. As schools and childcare facilities closed, parents and caregivers were forced to make difficult decisions around time dedicated to work versus home responsibilities, and careers have taken a backseat–most often for female caretakers. According to McKinsey, despite no historical differences between male and female attrition rates, working women are now leaving the workforce at disproportionate rates to their male counterparts. The trend is likely to persist over time. Compared to one in five men, one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce altogether.
Women cite a multitude of reasons why they are inclined to leave the workforce: caregiving responsibilities, relocation for a spouse’s higher paying job, dissatisfaction with their current job, and a lack of career growth opportunity, to name a few. Chief among these reasons, work-life balance has suffered as a result of an increased workload–both in the virtual office and the home, with childcare and family responsibilities tacking on an extra three hours of work a day. With company cultures that value round-the-clock responses and long hours, maintaining both career & personal life has become unsustainable for many, forcing them out.
The effects of women leaving the workforce are profound
While women had been making strides in the workforce, studies from McKinsey show females gaining representation from entry-level to senior management, the leak of women from the workforce will likely impact these numbers in years to come. Losing early on, entry-level female talent hinders the ability to grow and promote them, leaving senior management levels male dominated with perceived barriers to entry.
Losing women in the workforce not only positions organizations at risk of losing gender balance, but it also threatens the ability to maintain an ethnically diverse workforce. CNBC shows unemployment rates for Black & Hispanic women have seen the steepest spikes, nearly doubling those of white men, Black men, and white women.
When women leave the workforce, it’s not often a “quick fix” to bring them back in, so a return to normalcy amidst the pandemic won’t solve the problem. Leaving the workforce for an extended period of time makes it harder to re-enter, due to challenges in finding childcare, needing to upskill to meet new demands, and seeking roles in a new market, one where many roles are at risk of automation. On top of this, women who exit and re-enter the workforce run the risk of lower earnings–only perpetuating the existing wage gap. A lower income may not override the incurred cost of childcare or other needs that must be met, and women may feel guilty leaving these responsibilities to return to the workforce.
How to advocate for & retain women in your workforce
Organizations can help to stop the leak by putting benefits and initiatives into place to retain their female workforce, and by creating opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce. Here are a few ways you can start:
- Establish flexible hours & remote working opportunities. Allowing for flexibility in when and where people work helps make space for women in the workforce to attend to obligations outside of work without hindering their career. Loosen the boundaries of work hours and help employees to determine the best schedule for their situation and role within the organization.
- Create sponsorship & mentorship opportunities geared toward females. Highlighting potential and fostering growth will help women to feel valued within your organization and will help those who exited the workforce to re-enter effectively. Set up programs that match female employees with senior leaders who will not only mentor, but also create key connections and advocate for them in high-visibility and promotional opportunities.
- Foster positive work-life balance culture. This requires work from everyone – not just HR. Establish guidelines of healthy behaviors – no late night calls, no working on the weekends – and hold leaders accountable for modeling and rewarding these behaviors.
- Ensure pay equity across gender and ethnic backgrounds. Address the risk of losing talent due to caregiving costs by guaranteeing fair pay. Conduct a pay equity analysis to discover any gaps and study the external market to ensure pay is competitive.
- Offer strong caregiver benefits. Caregiving doesn’t always mean children, it can extend to anyone in the family – a spouse, parent, grandparent, and others. Create a robust benefit package that caters to caregivers by including options like flexible spending accounts, back-up care, and care management platforms to give caregivers peace of mind.
The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major shifts in the makeup of women in the workforce, and we are now forced to address how organizations play a role in this change. Organizations have an opportunity to reconsider how they engage and support women, and, if they take appropriate action, can help ensure that women feel empowered to stay in the workforce, or make their return.
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