No one can deny the difficulties brought about by the pandemic, but while some are starting to experience a “return to normal,” others are being left behind. Years after the emergence of COVID-19, it’s more evident than ever how disproportionately it’s impacted women in the workforce.
McKinsey research identified that despite only representing about 39% of global employment, women made up more than half of those leaving the workforce during the Great Resignation. And while male employment is back to pre-pandemic levels, there are still far fewer women in the workplace than before.
Women in the Workforce: What Led to the Decline?
What led to this decline? Some women left the workforce because child care challenges were too great. Facing inflexible work schedules and a lack of readily available child care, women took on unpaid labor at a higher rate than their male counterparts. For others, it was a matter of industry. Many women-dominated industries, such as restaurant work, suffered greatly during the pandemic’s height, which led to a huge drop in employment numbers.
We’re still about a million women behind in employment numbers, so it’s vital to support women reentering the workforce. Part of that support includes understanding that even if a woman’s work hiatus is over, the experiences throughout the pandemic have fundamentally changed what she now needs out of the workplace.
How to Support Women in the Workforce?
- Support upward mobility and career progression
Career progression is particularly important to women. Historically, women are promoted to managerial positions at a lower rate than men. This creates long-term problems, such as fewer women in positions of leadership overall. One study found that women leaving the workforce for a pregnancy — even just on maternity leave — are three times more likely to have a lower-paid job or less responsibilities when returning to work than women who don’t take leave. Even staying with an employer leaves mothers with a lower chance of progression in their careers.
This is a tragic failure in how we handle women in the workforce, and we can’t let the pandemic exacerbate it. No matter their career path, women deserve to have their previous work qualifications matter — even if they’ve had to step away during the pandemic. Fair and equal opportunities for promotion are a signal that companies are responding to pandemic-fed inequalities.
With women returning to the office looking for ways to move up, now is the time to reevaluate your own workplace — especially if there are few women in leadership positions. Look for ways to make upward mobility accessible and transparent for all. Create programs that provide mentorship or training for women, and don’t overlook them when promotion time comes.
- Help working parents with their careers
The pandemic revealed that gaps in our child care system can derail women’s careers and result in millions of dollars in unpaid labor, as McKinsey’s research attests to. Find ways that your company can support working parents. Don’t be afraid to get creative. This might look like implementing on-site child care programs, providing compensation for daycare, or instilling more flexible or hybrid work schedules for those with young children.
It can also mean investing their success. What does this look like?
First, a living wage and good insurance are key. In fact, more than 80% of women returning to work report that they’re looking for these factors. Equally critical is company-awareness of burnout, which disproportionately impacted women during the Great Resignation. Women are looking for companies to provide flexibility, such as a shorter work week or more control over their work schedules.
- Build trust in the workplace
Walking away from a career is difficult, and women reentering the workforce may be wary of how supportive workplaces will now be, especially given the track record between businesses and their treatment of women employees.
Managers should focus on building trust through empathy. Understanding the challenges that forced women to step back in the first place is important, but clear and open communication on how things will change is essential to taking this step.
Voice support and recognition for the great work women do, such as critical work supporting diversity measures and advocating for work-life balance.
It’s important for employees to make those connections to ensure a strong team. But it’s equally important that companies recognize those doing extra work. Women stepping back into their careers are looking for that recognition; be empathetic to their struggles and make employee support as a company-wide practice.
- Partner with helpful workforce programs
Some women reentering the workforce may be looking for help. Company-sponsored “returnship” programs can be especially useful for women restarting their careers by providing tips on networking, resume refreshing, navigating feelings of guilt, and more.
Partner with returnship programs to support women. Make them feel supported and prepared, and you’ll also receive significantly boost employee retention. Help women help your business succeed, or don’t be surprised when you lose these over-achievers to competitors.
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