It’s no secret that women (especially Black and Latina women who worked in the hospitality and leisure industries) have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 saw 5 million women leave the workforce, whether through layoffs or because they were forced to leave their jobs due to caregiver responsibilities such as childcare and homeschooling. Over 2 million of those women are not actively searching for jobs, meaning they are unlikely to be considering a return to work any time soon. Meanwhile, companies are reporting a “labor shortage” and declaring that there are not enough workers to fill their open positions.
Although a large portion of these women are not ready to return to the workplace, an even larger group are looking to return but are discouraged by workplaces that do not support their needs. What can organizations do to improve their working environments and encourage women back to the workplace?
Pre-Pandemic, the Work/Home Burden on Women Was Already Disproportionate
Even before the pandemic, the majority of women did most of the caregiving and household work. This was true for women working outside the home as well, referred to as the “second shift,” or the 15 or so additional hours per week spent by women on caregiving, cleaning, cooking, and other household duties. This juggling act of balancing work and home responsibilities plagues the majority of working women. Over half of the women in these positions also find it extremely difficult to focus on advancing their careers with such heavy home-life expectations.
For those who could afford to outsource those duties, these responsibilities (which are generally low-paying) fell mostly to women of color. Only families with children who had access to childcare could “afford” to have both parents work. Generally, if their income was lower or no family members were available to help care for young children, mothers would be the ones to reduce their hours or leave the workforce to care for their children. And for those with childcare, mothers tended to be the ones shuttling children to and fro, which added stress and time to every commute, every day. However, this stress goes beyond work-related commutes and extends further into commuting to after-school activities and daily extracurriculars.
With so many extra responsibilities, many women found it difficult to find the time or energy to advance or even maintain their careers. Add this to everything we know about gender bias in the workplace and its effect on women, and it is clear that trying to maintain any kind of work/life balance was already challenging for them even before COVID-19.
The Pandemic Hit Working Mothers Especially Hard
When the pandemic arrived, schools and childcare centers across the country shut down, some never to return—4.5 million child care slots could be lost permanently. Women were primarily the ones who shouldered the new burden of homeschooling or supervising virtual schooling. And if their children were not in school yet, they took on the childcare as well. This was regardless of whether they were still working from home or not, which created an almost impossible situation. As already mentioned, women were laid off en masse, especially in the female-dominated leisure and hospitality industries. But many others, without anyone to watch their children, had no choice but to leave their jobs entirely.
How Can Companies Encourage Women to Return to the Workforce?
As I have pointed out, women who are caregivers are the most likely to experience challenges in returning to employment. Only the largest of companies may be able to offer on-site childcare, but for everyone else, consider programs such as flexible schedules and hybrid schedules with the option to work remotely, flexible spending accounts, and paid sick leave for dependents.
Offering flexible working policies is another vital way to support equity for women in the workforce, not just women with dependents. The built-in flexibility that comes with most work-from-home jobs also means that dealing with any of life’s usual disruptions and challenges—for example, having to be at home to let the plumber in—could be undertaken smoothly with minimal interruption to the workday. In this way, flexible working policies benefit all employees. Concerns about the perception that women or parents in general get special treatment can be mitigated or even eliminated by providing flexible work policies for all employees at every level.
One of the biggest benefits of flexible spending accounts is the ability to set it up as a dependent care flexible spending account that can then be used for childcare expenses. This allows parents to build up an ongoing fund from their normal paychecks to take care of these bills when they arise. In addition to adopting flexible spending accounts, companies can provide a specific number of paid sick days to be used in the event that an employee’s child is sick. These days would be outside of normal PTO days.
Studies have shown that offering childcare benefits can reduce absenteeism and turnover across the board. More engaged employees leads to higher productivity and less stress for everyone in the company, not just working mothers.
As more women consider returning to the workforce, prioritizing or maintaining gender bias training is essential to create a work environment where women can succeed and take on positions of leadership. This goes hand in hand with cultivating a culture of empathy and open communication from the top down. It is the responsibility of organizations to better understand the needs of all of their employees, especially those who face additional challenges outside the workplace, so that they can provide the types of support needed to foster productivity, growth, and success.
Companies need to take direct action to address the serious issues that women face in the workplace, whether because of expectations and responsibilities around caregiving and household labor, or because of unconscious bias at every level. By making thoughtful changes to policies and workplace culture, organizations will be able to support women in the crucial ways needed to allow them to return to the workforce.
I’m Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, and I founded Gupta Consulting Group to help CDOs and HR leaders create and implement DEI programs that meet their organization’s unique needs.
Schedule a conversation with me today to learn more about our DEI solutions.