Thousands Of Women Haven't Rejoined The Workforce. Here's How To Get Them Back.
The pandemic caused hordes of women to leave the workforce due to family responsibilities. Many aren't returning. Here's what companies can do to pave the way for their return.
As the U.S. economy continues to recover from the pandemic and many businesses look for new workers, many women no longer see a place for themselves in many industries. According to the National Women's Law Center, women made up 46.4% of new job gains in May 2022 with 181,000 jobs, yet they are still in a deficit compared to the pre-pandemic job market in 2020. Women's jobs now make up 88% of the 822,000 net jobs lost since the pandemic began.
So, what's causing them to consider leaving or not coming back?
The 'motherhood penalty'
The motherhood penalty is a phrase devised by sociologists who believe that working mothers experience disadvantages in pay, perceived competence and benefits relative to women without children. Living through Covid-19 has exposed the many responsibilities mothers have. Many working mothers were forced to reduce their hours — or quit altogether — to balance work with childcare obligations, homeschooling and other caring roles. They had to choose between work and family, and maintaining any semblance of work-life balance often became practically impossible.
Related: Why women leave tech
Many childcare centers were closed during lockdown — and early predictions have suggested the pandemic could be responsible for losing 4.5 million childcare slots. This makes the already limited childcare arrangements even harder to secure, thus reducing the likelihood of women returning to full-time work.
Many of these factors explain why so many women were mentally and physically exhausted in 2021, with 42% of women reporting they felt burnt out, pushing them to reevaluate their careers and what they want from life.
Women are tired of the constant battle for equality
One of the reasons women are leaving the labor force stretches further back than the past two years. The challenge of trying to be upwardly mobile, get better-paying jobs and be recognized for their achievements is a battle that began long before the pandemic and has left them tired and mentally drained by the constant fight for equality.
It's a simple fact: Women's achievements aren't recognized as consistently in the workplace as men's, and women remain underpaid for their work. This is no big revelation. Gender bias and inequality are still present in corporate offices and organizations. Constantly fighting for change takes its toll.
Returning to the 2020 study by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, only 89 white women and 85 women of color were promoted for every 100 men promoted to manager. And while women's representation improved in 2020 — inequalities remain. Promotions to managerial levels are not equitable to men.
Since 2016, these researchers have seen the same trend: Women are promoted to managers at far lower rates than men, making it hard for companies to see progress among women in the workplace at those more senior levels.
But we also need to address the fact that women of color are at an even more significant disadvantage. The report found that between entry-level and senior executive levels, the representation of women of color drops off by 75%. As a result, women of color account for only 4% of C-suite leaders in the U.S.
Have gender equality laws in the workplace helped? Things have improved, but it's clear that women are still being overlooked and not valued on the same playing field.
Can we entice them back?
Many companies have found that having a more diverse workforce generally means they have a much more varied skillset on hand and are also more profitable. Senior-level teams with gender diversity are 21% more likely to have "above average profitability" and generally be much more engaged and productive.
Attracting women back to work isn't easy. The work environment may need to be modernized to help women succeed. For example, 78% of women say they need more flexibility to return to work, a MetLife report found, and 73% want better career progression opportunities.
An investment by the U.S. government in childcare could help pave the way for working mothers to return to the office. However, offering paid leave is also essential to ensure a woman's job is protected while raising a family. And while paid maternity leave is crucial, so is the equivalent for men. Paid paternity leave will give families a choice about who takes time off work, rather than the responsibility mostly falling on the shoulders of women.
There's a lot that leaders could do to entice women back into the workplace
One option is to explore their own unconscious biases and examine how their management style impacts women — from how they communicate and promote to what opportunities they make available. Leaders might want to pay attention to recruitment biases, too. When hiring, less emphasis should be put on quickly eliminating women with any gaps on their resume, as it may be related to childcare responsibilities or the effects of the pandemic.
And while strides have been made with equal pay, efforts must go much further. As of 2021, the most recent figures show that the average white woman's salary is around 82% of the average white man's. The picture is even bleaker for Black, Native American and Latina women, whose salary is around 63%, 60% and 55% that of a white man's, respectively.
Women need access to more flexible and innovative career opportunities to help them find the best pathways to success. Now is the time for companies to encourage and support their female employees with novel approaches to work life. The employers who do this will see the benefits of having a more diverse and multi-skilled workforce, leading the way for women at work.
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