Throughout 2020 and into 2021, employment statistics and trends were pretty uniformly grim. Mass unemployment due to the Covid pandemic impacted workers across the spectrum—and often hit already vulnerable groups hard, like women, employees of color, and people who have disabilities. As the stats became clearer (and ever more alarming), one major trend line became apparent: women were leaving the workforce in droves, either through layoffs or quitting their jobs due to stress or conflicting obligations.
In September 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce—more than four times the number of men. Research by organizations like Deloitte Global and McKinsey found that this was due to a combination of factors: involuntary unemployment, stressful work environments, and voluntarily leaving jobs to manage family or health obligations.
As employment begins to rebound and companies look to shore up their workforce, the priority should be helping to stem this exodus of women, so to speak. A generation of female leadership and growth in the workplace is jeopardized by a perceived lack of support and the real conflicts that many women face between home and work. Organizations looking to build back this crucial part of the workforce can take action to keep women (or bring them back) from leaving the game altogether.
1. Allow flexible work arrangements
Women are often primary caregivers for children or relatives and end up having to balance the demands of a full-time job with another full-time job at home. Flexible work arrangements (which have become so essential for workers across the board during the pandemic) can go a long way toward helping working moms manage multiple obligations and workloads without feeling overwhelmed.
Before the pandemic, many companies were hesitant to offer workers flexible work accommodations, preferring to have a more traditional in-person model. Infrastructure and the limitations of collaborating remotely were often cited as points of resistance. However, things changed virtually overnight, and companies that never had a robust work-from-home program had to develop one right away. It was a learning experience for management groups in all industries, but it did give companies a structure for doing that moving forward. Once you acknowledge that work can be done remotely, it can be frustrating for employees when that’s walked back. Consider the past year an opportunity to do a deep evaluation of what absolutely can’t be done remotely, and what can.
It’s also important to allow flexible hours, and set expectations that employees have lives and obligations outside of the job, even if they’re working from home. Many WFH employees report feeling stressed and pressured to work beyond normal business hours. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance and setting expectations around hours (whatever they may be) can signal to employees that they have some leeway in the workday.
Setting clear goals as productivity-oriented, rather than clock-oriented, can help give employees the flexibility they need to be productive.
2. Implement stronger family care policies
Going back to the caretaking issue, becoming parent-friendly is a must for any company hoping to retain talent. The pandemic exposed a lot of alarming gaps and challenges for working parents, from finding childcare to allow for at-home productivity to helping kids manage their school while the parents try to get work done in the other room. And for employees who don’t have the option to work remotely at all, childcare has always been a struggle for many working parents.
If possible, partnering with childcare services can help moms who need to balance the needs of their kids with the demands of work. Offering discounts, subsidies, or incentives as benefits can help, as can employee and stress-relief support groups for parents. Being family-friendly goes beyond having daycare options.
Improving parental leave all-around can help boost retention. Many women cite having to choose between having children and their career progress as reasons for leaving work. Extended paid maternity leave can help make your organization a competitive option, as well as paid paternity leave. Robust paternity leave policies can help alleviate the burden on moms and make the return to work easier after the birth or adoption of a child.
3. Prioritize diversity and inclusion in hiring and promotion
Many companies are prioritizing diversity and inclusion as part of their hiring and employee retention. That’s excellent—but it’s not always the easiest thing to implement or convey. One of the best things your organization can do to help build a more supportive structure is to create a team devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI)—including officers, clear initiatives, and high visibility. Gender diversity is a major component of any inclusivity progress.
A DEI team can identify potential danger zones for retaining women employees and implement ways to help make the organization more welcoming of working women’s concerns and priorities.
4. Offer returnships
One of the biggest obstacles for women looking to get back into the workforce is often the gap caused when they take time off to care for their families or deal with personal issues. Returnships are becoming more and more common for mid-career professionals who had to leave for one reason or another, but who may struggle with feeling left behind or lacking in current experience. These part-time or flexible roles can help ease women back into their career path, even if there has been a disruption.
5. Re-evaluate pay and benefits
Gender pay disparity is often cited as a source of discouragement for women in the workplace. Parity is still a long way away—30 years, by one U.S. Census estimate. With women earning, on average, 82 cents on the dollar compared to male employees, pay discrepancies can discourage women from remaining in the workplace. If women earn less than their partners, that often drives them to be the one who drops out of the workforce and stays home for the family. Ensuring that your organization pays women on par with men in similar roles not only helps push toward overall parity but also conveys that you’re committed to supporting women.
Women are leaving the workforce in shocking numbers, but with thoughtful policies and support, your organization can be part of reversing that trend.