The vulnerability of women’s role in the workplace showed up front and center when COVID-19 took hold of the world. Nearly half a million more women than men exited the workforce during the pandemic, and, earlier this year, one in four women were considering leaving their careers entirely.
This creates a challenge and concern among employers today, as having a diverse team fosters productivity, increases employee engagement, and boosts motivation. So, how can businesses retain their female staff? How can they bring women back into the organization? Moreover, what role does HR play?
Why did more women than men exit the workforce during the pandemic?
Three key drivers have led to more women leaving the labor force in the last 18+ months. First, women predominantly hold roles that were hardest hit, such as hospitality, childcare, and clerical jobs. Second, schools shut down, giving many women a disproportionate load of the childcare and virtual teaching responsibilities. Lastly, existing salary discrepancies played a part, as women still earn less than men for the same job. The gender pay gap left women in two-income households with a dilemma, as it made the most financial sense to leave their jobs and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home, instead of outsourcing costly childcare.
Why do women continue to feel less optimistic about their career prospects?
Despite some companies’ attempts to support employees throughout the pandemic, women felt exhausted, burned out, and under pressure. The crisis forced everyone to reevaluate their priorities, which prompted some women to leave their positions voluntarily in an effort to lessen the anxiety that comes with juggling home and work responsibilities, and having more time for their interests outside of work, especially during a time of such mental stress.
Even with some COVID-related restrictions lifting, many women are not running to get back into the workforce. According to a recent survey, more than half of the women interviewed were not optimistic about the future of their careers. History has shown that women are penalized for taking breaks, whether to care for a new baby or explore new opportunities, and often come back to a lower paying job with less responsibilities. Some families have made financial adjustments during the pandemic, such as moving and lowering their household expenses, and no longer need additional income to maintain their lifestyle.
On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the dissatisfaction with their work prospects will inspire more women to strike out on their own and build a new wave of female-led businesses. Such was the case during the Great Recession of 2007 and 2009 when women-owned businesses (who helped stabilize the economy during the recovery) were created out of a sense of necessity as the unemployed are more inclined to start a business during a recession to avoid extended financial difficulties.
How can corporate leaders turn this around?
Businesses know that women are valuable in the workplace. An unwillingness to budge in meeting the needs of female workers will result in a loss of any momentum gained over the last decade in terms of diversity and inclusion. In addition, turnover has the potential to cost businesses billions. Employers are struggling to find new workers as the “Great Resignation” has led to millions leaving their jobs. Without making some changes, more women will leave and building an inclusive workplace will be even more difficult.
There are several things that corporate leaders need to examine to turn this exodus around:
- Meet the needs of working mothers
Flexible work schedules and the ability to work from home will increase women’s job retention. Leadership should determine if working mothers really need to have a solid 9:00 – 5:00 workday and if teamwork synergy and processes can be handled remotely.
- Evaluate pay structures
Companies need to continue to evaluate salaries and equity, and pay the same regardless of if a worker is in the office or remote. Time away from work should not equate to taking two steps back.
- Implement empathy
Corporate leadership needs to understand each person’s unique perspective and respect it, regardless of race or gender, in order to excel at retaining their diverse and dynamic workforces.
- Provide meaningful development opportunities
Businesses need to increase the developmental support of their workforce, finding ways to rescale their worker’s training and education. Giving them the tools and the path to more satisfying careers results in greater retention and higher performance.
Instead of recoiling to pre-pandemic habits, companies need to reevaluate what makes sense in the future by finding ways to keep employees engaged and make sure they are supporting their work/life balance.
What role might human resources departments play in developing work environments that inspire women to return?
Human resources departments play a pivotal role in facilitating the office culture. When it comes to women, HR should continue to encourage leadership to create flexible work schedules and work-from-home opportunities in order to retain their top talent. They need to train their leaders on active listening skills and assist with building productive teams that can function remotely. Programs that recognize and reward female employees for their contributions and foster a culture that encourages women to share their opinions help create a workplace where all feel valued.
The cost of investing in active listening, empathy, and workplace flexibility far outweighs the cost of recruiting. However, hiring women employees is just as important as retaining them. Often, HR is the first point of contact that a prospective employee has. From the language in job postings to the initial interview, how the HR team conducts those interactions factors into candidates’ perceptions of the company. If a business implements a commitment to diversity in hiring, that will also speak volumes to potential female employees.
It’s a crisis, but also an opportunity.
Women have made substantial gains in representation, but COVID-19 magnified where work is still needed. Adapting to the needs of the female staff helps reverse the loss caused by COVID-19’s resulting gender inequality and has tremendous advantages for organizations in terms of hiring, costs, and reaching diversity and inclusion goals. If organizations want to retain their talent and bring women back into the workplace, they must accept and embrace this new normal.
Written by Natalie J. McGill.
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