Women's Equality Day
August 26th is Women's Equality Day

Women’s Equality Day: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Female Workforce

As we observe Women’s Equality Day in 2021, it’s necessary to take stock of the state of women in the workforce.

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities along both gender and ethnic lines. While non-whites were hit harder by the health effects of the crisis, women were severely impacted in the workplace.

It didn’t take long for analysts to uncover the reason why many women left the workforce. The fact is, the responsibility for child care still falls disproportionately to the feet of women. Many women also worked in frontline jobs that saw them laid off, furloughed or forced to quit due to the dangers of what a day of work could mean for their health and family. Consequently, millions of women exited the workforce at a rapid pace.

In February 2021, the pandemic had already pushed roughly 3 million women from the workforce. The impact on the economy alone is significant enough to raise concerns, but organizational culture, workplace diversity and the health of the talent pool have all taken a major hit too. Since then, many women have returned to the workforce, but not without consequence for the time off.

The Cost of a Break

As Fidelity noted in 2020, a break in working can have a substantial impact on the retirement savings and work trajectory of women impacted by COVID-19. For example, if someone earning a $50,000 salary were to take just one year off, their retirement savings would be reduced up to $106,469, assuming the person saved 9% of their salary while earning a 3% employer match while employed.

According to the Pew Research Center, women still make roughly 84% of what their male counterparts earn. Given that this pay gap persists, the time it takes to make up for the loss of retirement funds is significant, meaning women who chose to prioritize other areas of their lives such as caring for family, may be forced to delay retirement – unless organizations step in to help them in some way.

Despite the cost down the road, many women have yet to return to the workforce and analysts suggest that their return may take a long time to change for a variety of reasons. For some, the pandemic has provided time to sit and think about the future. Many have had to grapple with mortality following the loss of loved ones or became sick themselves, forcing them to rethink what they want for their future.

Elsewhere, a return to in industries such as hospitality, retail, education, and health services just isn’t appealing, either due to the nature of the work or the traditionally low salaries that go with it.

More than 200,000 women returned to the workforce in May 2021, but job gains continuing at this pace is in doubt as the delta variant causes increased cases of COVID across all age groups, leading to more uncertainty.

The majority of workers who were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic have returned to work in some capacity, but as one labor economist with ZipRecruiter noted in an interview with NPR in June, 70% of people coming off unemployment benefits are going to new employers.

Many women have spent the pandemic gaining new skills and building new networks. What they’re finding as they re-enter the workforce are companies dying to have them. But COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis we face, and if the delta variant is teaching us anything, it’s that there needs to be flexibility built into recruiting efforts for women..

The question then becomes, how can companies support women in the workforce better?

Winning Women Back and Retaining Those Who Stayed

One reason many women may not be returning is that they don’t miss all the things that came with the workplace. Despite talk of inclusive behaviors and philosophies, women are all too often critiqued on their communication styles and called too aggressive if they assert themselves.

According to a study from Deloitte titled “Women at Work: A Global Outlook,” women from the LGBTQ community are four times more likely to be subjected to jokes of a sexual nature. A majority of women overall reported experiencing unwanted physical contact, disparaging remarks about their gender and people questioning their judgment in the past year.

The workplace setting may have changed as the world went remote, but issues with workplace dynamics spilled over into the remote and hybrid work era despite the distance between employees.

To get women back, a focus on inclusive behaviors and taking reports of non-inclusive behavior seriously is a good place to start. Here are some other tips to help make your workplace more alluring to female candidates and a more enticing place to stay for the employees who remained.

Support work-life balance

As the demands of homemaking and childcare fall disproportionately to women, many feel overwhelmed trying to maintain a career. PwC calculated that the average mother has taken on an additional 7.7 hours per week of unpaid childcare, equating to more than 31 hours a week. That is in itself, a full-time job.

READ: A 4-Day Work Week: Why We Don’t Have It Yet

Now add project deadlines and all-hands meetings to the mix and what you end up with is a recipe for burnout. Focusing on work-life balance with these employees and candidates is an important way to reassure them that they don’t necessarily have to choose between career and family and that the organization is there to support and work with them through difficult times.

Provide flexible work options

To account for the increased demands that women face at home, it may require the organization to be flexible with non-traditional work hours and locations. If the last year has proven anything, it’s that many a job can be done remotely without being physically attached to a specific on-site location.

To get the most out of remote, hybrid and flex employees, managers will need to understand how to manage in new ways that aren’t tied to accounting for people sitting at their desks typing but rather what they produce for the business.

Focus on career progression

We’re already seeing push back on remote employees as employers look to get people back into offices. Some want to pay remote employees less and concerns are on the rise over whether remote employees will be treated as fairly as those working in offices, who would have no shortage of face time with managers and executives.

For women specifically, there are significant concerns that they may not be able to re-enter the workforce at the level they were at or will find it more difficult to climb the ranks due to the break in their career progression.

It’s vital for businesses to establish a culture where candidates can thrive regardless of their locational circumstances. If there isn’t a sense that an employee’s career can progress due to how, where or when their work is done, then it’s highly likely that disengagement and separation will soon follow.

Highlight well-being offerings

Employee well-being has become a topic of concern throughout the pandemic era of work. That may mean mental well-being, physical or even financial. If you’re hiring women who have taken a break from the workforce due to the life demands of COVID-19, providing financial coaching to help them discover ways to aggressively close the gap in lost retirement funds is something many women will value.

At the same time, mental well-being resources are becoming more popular as people struggle with stress, isolation, or a feeling of being alone. These tools are valuable methods of supporting employees as they deal with the challenges life throws at them and shouldn’t be abandoned when the pandemic becomes less of a concern for people.

Help with childcare

According to a survey from YouGov on behalf of Bankrate, childcare expenses can cost an average American household $8,355 per child each year. Without those household costs, the loss of wages doesn’t appear to be as significant. With more time to plan, expenses on things like eating and home maintenance services decline too.

READ: Northwell Health Offers Ways to Support Employees with Children During Uncertain Back-to-School Times 

To bring women back to the workforce, the issue of childcare assistance will have to be addressed, something that is long overdue in the United States yet commonplace abroad.

The Deloitte report shows that when these needs are met, women feel more valued, and report greater mental well-being, motivation, and productivity. Notably, they are more likely to remain with an organization beyond two years and longer than their male counterparts.

The Cost of Decreased Female Participation

The economic cost of women losing some of their financial empowerment has obvious impacts that is being felt across industries. Meanwhile, the aforementioned retirement issue will certainly prove to be problematic down the road, a deficit may require governments or taxpayer-funded aide to help resolve. All of that doesn’t account for the impact on business, however.

Those focused on a return on investment need not look too far to justify the cost of initiatives that bring women back into the fold. An article from PwC dubbed the exodus of female workers as a “shecession” with progress for women in the workplace and economic empowerment regressing to 2017 levels by the end of this year.

“The setbacks that we are experiencing with COVID-19 in terms of the workforce tell a worrisome story,” said Brushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader of People and Organization at PwC. “While the impacts are being felt by everyone across the globe, we are seeing women exiting the workforce at a faster rate than men. Women carry a heavier burden than men of unpaid care and domestic work. This has increased during the pandemic, and it is limiting women’s time and options to contribute to the economy.”

The cost also comes at the expense of things like innovation, creativity and balance. Good teams capable of succeeding in the modern world have women and the diversity of their thought processes built into them. Study after study shows that diverse teams are more successful and innovative than those that are not, and women play a big part in that.

Whether organizations can successfully overcome an exodus of female talent will play a big part in shaping the post-pandemic success of the global economy, their products, and their workforce. As you sit in observance of Women’s Equality Day, consider what your organization can do to address the challenges women face when re-entering or remaining part of the workforce.

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