According to the 2020 Women in The Workplace Study, “One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to Covid-19.”
Compared to men, women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic when it comes to their careers. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, COVID-19 has caused women’s unemployment to increase by 2.9 percentage points over men. Not to mention, working moms were almost 3 times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. And to take it a step further, women who leave the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities and then return to work will receive an offer that is 7% less than what a candidate who is currently employed would receive, regardless of gender. Translation: women are leaving the workforce, largely due to the added pressure the pandemic has created, and if they choose to return they will likely not be compensated at the rate they were prior.
What’s at stake here is a major setback in the progress that women have made in the workplace over the course of time in terms of joining the workforce, achieving positions of leadership, and closing the gender wage gap. In 1920, women made up just about 20% of the workforce, compared to today when women make up about half. And just this year, women increased their representation in SVP and C-suite positions from 23 to 28 percent and 17 to 21 percent respectively. This was a slow progression to begin with, and with millions of women considering departing the workforce, we’re likely to stagnate or lose progress. This will not only have an effect on the workplace, but there will also be an economic impact. Women are the drivers of 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions in the U.S. In addition to this, the majority of U.S. households are dual-income, which means that for many, purchasing power to spend on the basics like groceries or home improvement will be cut in half.
We asked leaders to comment on how they think businesses can improve the workplace for women, and ultimately keep them in the workforce. Here’s what they said.
“Employers should help working parents, especially mothers stay in the workforce for many reasons. Not the least of them is the fact that women drive the world economy by contributing trillions in consumer spending. Without stable jobs and careers, women will not be in the position to do their share to help our economy recover. COVID can set professional women, by many accounts back by a decade. Employers can help prevent that from happening. For their part, women should be open about conveying their needs, as well as loud and clear about communicating how they are meeting what's expected of them professionally.” -Rachel Lyubovitzky, CEO, EverythingBenefits
“HR must continue to keep a vigilant watch out for discriminatory practices that can escalate in the midst of COVID-19 - and do something about it. Additionally, we owe it to our female employees (and moms) to be on top of communicating and honoring their rights and our responsibilities with regard to personal leave, sick leave, boundaries, and more. Employee training and re-education is key. At a time like this, we should be re-engaging our workforce to be advocates for workplace equity and fairness. Equity and fairness should be modeled in everything from hiring to separation. Provide mandatory training for staff and managers, incorporate policies of fairness in how you manage and reward employee performance, and create safe (and accountable spaces) for female employees to voice concerns and seek resolution without backlash or harm.” -Joey Price, CEO, JumpStart HR
“Companies who want to retain working moms should prioritize communication. Many women, especially mothers, feel uncomfortable asking for the flexibility or changes they may need during COVID, especially around childcare. Companies who are proactive about addressing their employees' concerns, and who train managers and staff around any implicit bias they may have to women, mothers in particular, will set both themselves and the employee up for a better working relationship." -Michelle Keefe, Founder and CEO of MomUp
“Managers can lessen the impact of COVID-19 on female employees by being flexible with them. They should still hold them accountable for completing tasks and objectives, however they should give them the space to work within a schedule that enables them to meet their other personal obligations. By being flexible with their time and allowing them to work from home, they are showing that they care and understand that the current environment is challenging. Another way that managers can assist female employees is by having candid and open conversations with them to find out how they can best support them- maybe it's through job-sharing, reducing their hours or through some other means. With open dialogue, both parties can come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial.” -Charlene Walters, MBA, PhD, Business and Entrepreneurship Coach, Author: Launch Your Inner Entrepreneur
"Talk about spread thin: working mothers are bearing near-impossible burdens during COVID-19, and HR can and should step up. Even with both parents WFH, we know mothers do far more hands-on parenting on average. Single mothers are doing two jobs (one of which is 24/7) likely with no break and no help. I've been in Zoom meetings where at least one woman is juggling work and the kids. And these aren't normal times: kids are under a huge strain — their world is upside down — so they require much more attention. If HR established broader, more forgiving policies on flexible schedules, that would make a huge difference. Give working moms more autonomy over their schedules: the role is hard enough without added stress over time conflicts. Provide additional personal days for employees so one parent can step in for the other, consider a 4-day work week, and encourage managers to slow down on those long-range initiatives that can wait. That would help a lot." -Meghan M. Biro, CEO, TalentCulture
I feel it's important for employers to accommodate women, especially right now. Men who are working from home statistically aren't pulling as much of their weight, and employers need to recognize this. The first step is in flexible scheduling. A working mom who's got her kids at home isn't going to have an uninterrupted workday. Allowing for a flexible schedule gives her time to get everything she needs to do done while not restricting her ability to take care of her family. -Rex Freiberger, CEO, Gadget Review
This phenomenon could have many implications if employers don’t take action. Thanks to the contributions from the leaders above, here are some steps you can take to make your workplace better for your female employees (and let’s be honest- guys will benefit too!). Let’s hope that in the short-term, we can keep women in their positions. And in the long term, that the workplace changes for the better in a way that is more suitable for caregivers, parents, men, and women.
Reevaluate policy. Pre-pandemic policies are likely not sustainable or relevant during COVID-19. Review these with your team and define or modify policies that make more sense for the environment today. SHRM has great resources on how you might consider updating your handbook policies and plan documents as they relate to COVID-19, including this checklist.
Be flexible. Employee burnout is real. And this is the reason why many women can no longer commit to working and having a family when faced with that tough decision. Flexible scheduling can help women take control over their schedules and recreate them in a way that suits their new lifestyle.
Review and change your employee benefits. Just as some of your policies may be stale, your benefits could likely use a refresh too. Gym memberships are no longer a sought after benefit, while online courses for children and mental health counseling, might just help your employees get through their week. Make sure you review the benefits you offer to see if they are still relevant, or if there are other more applicable options.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you’re not communicating actively with employees to understand how this intense transition has been, then you will never know how you can improve your workplace. Encourage HR conversations and surveys to ensure your practices are not ones that may drive women out.