Since COVID-19 began, numerous studies have shown the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women and their participation in the labor force. Coined ‘She-cession’, 2020 saw an alarming rate of women exiting the workforce. With more than 11 million women having lost their jobs and another 2.65 million having left the workforce, President Biden called the lack of women in the workforce a 'national emergency' for the country’s economic recovery. Contributing nearly $8 trillion to the annual GDP, there’s clearly a compelling case for doing more to help attract, retain and support women in the workforce.
And even though we have seen progress in the gender roles of sharing household and parenting responsibilities, and noteworthy strides for equal pay in the workforce, we need to understand why they are leaving so that we can take the right steps to attract and retain women in 2021.
Why Are Women Leaving the Workforce?
First and foremost, the lack of child care and caregiving services - largely due to the closures of schools and daycare centers. Not only do women continue bearing the brunt of domestic duties—with mothers being three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and childcare during the pandemic—but the economic crisis resulted in the elimination of many jobs typically held by women, such as retail workers, teachers, child care providers, caregivers, and nurses - with some not coming back even when restrictions are lifted.
In January alone, another 275,000 women dropped out of the labor force, accounting for nearly 80% of all workers over the age of 20 who left the workforce that month. Most at risk are the women in senior roles, working mothers, and women of color. These numbers are staggering.
How Can We Attract and Retain Women?
Women’s return to the workforce can’t be achieved without men’s equality in the home. Here are several actionable steps that can level the gender playing field to provide women the same ability as men to succeed at work.
With 90% of companies thinking about more work being done remotely as we head back out, women have a great opportunity to take advantage of this option. However, we need to be mindful of the long-term effects of this shift by creating a culture that adapts and doesn't view family obligations as a hindrance to job performance. If we fail to do so, there is the potential to create two types of employees: those who don't have caregiving responsibilities and can spend more facetime with their managers, and those who continue to shoulder the caregiving duties - mostly women - who could end up penalized with fewer opportunities, lower wages and, as a result, fewer chances for advancement.
Coined the “motherhood penalty”, employers continue to see women as less capable and less committed to work. In turn, women are hit with reduced wages, fewer chances for promotions, less job opportunities and can even force them out of the workforce altogether. By funding and encouraging men to take as much time for parental leave, it would actually help women by putting them on equal footing.
Women are at a higher risk of seeing greater earnings penalties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic because women have disproportionately taken time off from work or left their jobs in order to take on the caregiving responsibilities at home - whether it be caring for children or aging family members. According to a report by PayScale, women often incur a pay penalty on returning to work after a prolonged absence—earning 7 percent less on average than men in the same position.
"As the pandemic continues and uncertainty plagues the workforce, women are being disproportionately impacted as child care solutions are scarce and the pressure to balance work and parenting increases," said Tanya Jansen, co-founder of beqom, a cloud-based compensation software firm. "The pressure is on business leaders to reassess their compensation systems to create an equitable environment for women within their companies and to keep society from taking major steps back in gender equality.”
The pressure is on business leaders to reassess their compensation systems to create an equitable environment for women within their companies and to keep society from taking major steps back in gender equality.
Companies need to provide benefits that make life easier for working women. Consider adding policies and provisions such as a monthly house cleaner, tutoring stipend, support for finding child or elder care, and tailored colleague/peer support groups for moms. The more you can support women with their responsibilities at home, the more we will see women headed back to work.
“Stronger engagement on gender equality is key to a sustainable global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and building fairer, more inclusive, more prosperous societies. Women and girls are in the frontline of the pandemic and must be put in the driving seat of the recovery.” - Jutta Urpilainen, EU Commissioner for International Partnerships.
Stronger engagement on gender equality is key to a sustainable global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and building fairer, more inclusive, more prosperous societies.
Start with building out a diverse recruiting team that can bring unique perspectives to the table and a wider network of candidates to pull from. Deepen your candidate pipeline with a focus on gender equality and diversity. Hire candidates that may not check all the boxes of the job description today but who show growth potential you can invest in. Identify and work to remove any unconscious biases in the hiring process with a focus on equal pay for equal work. Diversity isn’t a line item, it’s the only way to run a company.
Begin with creating a healthy and inclusive corporate culture, focusing on tailoring programs for growth on all levels. With a combination of advancement opportunities, networking, training, and mentorship. In fact, women who are mentored are statistically more successful in the workplace than non-mentored women, they rise to positions of power faster and with fewer roadblocks. And it’s not only transformative for women—organizations can begin to balance their leadership teams with greater diversity.
Recently, President Biden called the lack of women in the workforce a 'national emergency'. Investing in women and providing them with the opportunity to join the workforce again isn’t just good for women, it’s good for the economy. In fact, if we can close the gender gap by 2025, $28 trillion would be added to the global economy. (To put that in perspective, that is the size of the economies of the US and China combined.) It goes without saying, we need to act quickly to reverse the trend.
With the vaccine rolling out and conversations being had at the White House and corporate America, there is reason to feel optimistic that 2021 will be a better year for women.
WRITTEN BYJanel Dyan