March is Women's History Month, the perfect time to start reflecting on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce. Since February 2020, more than a million women have left the workforce in the US. Another study found that 33% of women considered leaving or reducing their role in 2022, compared with 25% at the pandemic's start.
Employers are responsible for taking action and ensuring that their female employees can thrive in their roles. To do this, they must understand why women leave their jobs and what can be done to retain them in 2023 and beyond.
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Why Are Women Leaving the Workforce?
The persistent wage gap makes it an "obvious" choice on which person should bow out of the workforce. When faced with the current childcare crisis, it makes the most economic sense for the higher-earning family member to continue working, which is often the man in the household. Secondly, the stereotypes that women should be primary caregivers remain present today.
"Culturally, women are 'expected' to perform certain household responsibilities, including making meals, handling children's education, and looking after parents or in-laws," says Rita Kakati-Shah, Founder of Uma. "Women feel obligated to downshift or leave the workforce to 'hold down the fort' and take care of their families."
Why Is This a Crisis?
Women leaving the workforce negatively impacts employers, the economy, and everyone -- it is not simply a crisis for women. More women and diversity in the workplace directly correlate with higher employee engagement, retention, and stronger financial results.
Moreover, leaving the workforce has grave consequences for women's overall position in the labor force. The more time spent out of the workforce, the harder it is to rejoin it, and the wider the wage gap will get.
Employers and HR teams can play an impactful role in stopping women from leaving the workforce. We contacted HR and business leaders for advice on addressing the crisis and compiled the best tips below.
How Can You Keep Women In Your Workplace?
1. Offer Flexible Work Hours or WFH Options
Help your female employees maintain a healthy work-home balance, even if they are taking on household responsibilities.
"Since the pandemic, it's become obvious that companies with remote workers have seen a rise in productivity," says Alexandra Zamolo, Head of Content Marketing at Beekeeper. "Offering work-from-home options lets the women on your team see that you understand their concerns and are working to address them."
Flexible scheduling makes it more manageable to take on other responsibilities.
"This could mean allowing them to work evenings, early mornings, or weekends," says Darrell Rosenstein, Founder of The Rosenstein Group. "Consider offering the option of shifting to part-time work or taking unpaid time off when they need it,"
2. Implement Programs for Empowerment
As an HR leader, you must incorporate strategies to let female employees know they're respected and being heard.
"The best way to train female employees is to implement workplace activities about women empowerment," says Sonya Schwartz, Founder of Her Norm. "This improves relationships with your female employees and boosts their morale. Invite female speakers to lead seminars, training, and events, and help change company culture from within."
3. Offer Resources For Working Parents
Childcare is getting harder to find and more challenging to afford. According to a poll conducted by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 34% of families in the US have trouble finding childcare. Even when parents can find it, they spend as much as 10% of their income on childcare! When childcare isn't feasible, the logical choice is often to discontinue work for whichever parent is earning less.
"If we want to keep women in the workplace, there need to be better options to support working moms," says Alyssa Rhoda, Director, Talent Acquisition at Zefr. "Companies must provide childcare options or flexibility with where, when, and how jobs can be done. Work-from-home options, flex schedules, and a commitment to gender pay equity are necessary!"
4. Reduce Unpaid Emotional Labor
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought emotional labor to the forefront of conscious"ness in the business world.
This form of unpaid labor tends to be felt more harshly by women, and it's no coincidence that we're leaving the workforce in droves," says Debbie Winkelbauer, CEO at Surf Search. "In the healthcare sector, turnover reduces optimal outcomes. It's even linked to patient mortality rates."
Winkelbauer believes that by lifting this additional burden on women through new hires or increased wages, businesses can help women feel appreciated.
5. Hold Gender Equality Training In the Workplace
As sexism and discrimination continue to run rampant in the office, women and minorities may be discouraged from staying in the workforce.
"We need serious, ongoing, universal, and mandatory training for respect in the office," Says Hosea Chang, COO of Hayden Los Angeles. "Even microaggressions like interrupting someone when they're speaking or making sexist jokes can become a frustrating environment for women. We all need to make more of an effort."
Gender training goes beyond legal requirements and can significantly improve retention rates, productivity, and creativity.
6. Offer a Care Stipend or Compassionate Paid Leave
It's no secret that the pandemic and lack of job security have caused additional financial stress for most workforce members. If your business has the means, a childcare stipend could significantly impact the lives of your female and male employees.
"Even a partial reimbursement from companies for in-home nursing care, tutors, or nannies can be a huge help in helping employees manage their time and finances," adds Rosenstein.
With women working overtime to keep families afloat, burnout seriously threatens mental well-being.
"We've introduced a policy of compassionate paid leave for those affected. Managers can now offer paid time off to women suffering from burnout or those struggling to cope with the double shift," says Amara Ukaigwe, CEO of Book Learn Pass.
7. Close the Gender Pay Gap
The gender wage gap continues to have severe consequences for women in business. According to the American Community Survey, median earnings for women average out to about 80% of earnings for men in the same age group. Though closing the gender pay gap is easier said than done, ensure you offer competitive and equal pay for women and men in similar positions.
"Companies that want to keep their female workers should offer competitive pay packages to keep them on the market and retain them for longer," says Emilija Simic, HR Consultant at TeamStage.
"Monetary benefits should be equal for all, regardless of gender," says Shradha Kumari, HR Manager at Survey Sensum. "We offer equal pay to both men and women and compensate for performance with a competitive salary."
8. Provide Career Development Plans
Ensuring your female employees have a growth path reinforces their value in the company. Development plans are a proven way to improve retention.
"There should be procedures in place, bespoke to each employee, which align with each person's career and personal development goals," says Tracey Beveridge, HR Director at Personnel Checks. "This includes role-mapping, mental health awareness, and development plans that are truly created on an employee-by-employee basis."
9. Revise Your Inclusivity Policy & Hiring Standards
Retaining women in the workforce starts from the very minute you begin hiring. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are our hiring managers more likely to hire men over women?
Do we make adjustments and accommodations for pregnant employees when they need it?
Do we offer equitable maternity leave?
Reviewing your company policies for gaps in the female working experience can significantly improve retention.
"Evaluate your current policies to see if they are genuinely inclusive and accommodating of the female perspective," says Linda Shaffer, Chief People Operations Officer of Checkr. "Is there a gender gap in leadership roles? Do female employees receive equal pay for equal work? Are their career advancement opportunities available? All employees need a clear understanding of the organization's expectations and an opportunity to succeed."
HR Support for Women in 2023: It's Time for Action!
As we celebrate Women's History Month, let's reflect on the work needed to achieve gender equality post-COVID-19. Employers must take action now by creating supportive initiatives, revising policies accordingly, and investing in resources that will help retain female employees while encouraging them toward success within their respective fields in 2023 and beyond.
"Women need to know they are fully supported emotionally and financially," says Ashley Rainsbarger, Coach & Consultant at The Wiser Life, LLC. "Invest in your women employees. You'll see the return. Don't, and they eventually leave!"
These efforts will not only help bring more balance into our economy and create an inclusive work environment where everyone can thrive together regardless of gender or other characteristics.
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