Confronting the Great She-Cession: Four Strategies for Keeping Women in the Workforce
If you’re a woman at any stage of your career, the headlines are truly alarming: women have lost nearly 6 million jobs since February 2020. Of those women still working, 1 in 4 are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. With the demands of virtual school, caring for aging parents, health concerns, and managing a home, working women have been backed into a corner and left with few choices when it comes to their careers.
The worst-case scenario is that decades of gains that women have made in leadership and overall earnings will not recover from 2020’s historic economic downfall. That’s the frightening news.
However, the good news – which the data doesn’t easily reveal – is that committed corporations can help ensure that their women aren’t left behind until work life begins to stabilize.
With the right approach, companies can create a culture where women stay engaged in the workforce while balancing what seems to be a never-ending shutdown life. Here’s how:
- Lean into empathetic leadership. From the top-down, organizations must be willing to hear and seek to understand the needs of women in the workplace. Now is the time for leaders at all levels, from the C-suite to the direct manager, to be open about their own struggles as the world has been turned upside down. A leader who personalizes his or her pandemic challenges comes across as more relatable and genuine than someone who only sticks to business as usual.
Offer open-ended listening sessions or anonymous surveys to take the temperature of women employees. A safe space to express fears, frustrations, and challenges will enable a continuous two-way dialogue between company decisionmakers and the employees who are in need of additional support. Don’t just offer new benefits in a vacuum as a one-and-done solution. Keep up the conversation to learn what’s working and where adjustments can be made that provide the greatest value to women.
2. Remember women in inclusion and diversity efforts. 2020 was the year when Corporate America decided get serious (at least publicly) about actively building robust diversity programs. However, Black and Latina women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic downturn, with job losses much higher than other groups. While frank discussions about race and ethnicity sparked greater awareness and understanding in professional spaces, it’s important that gender diversity remain part of the conversation.
Recruiting, training, and promoting women – including women of color – should be key drivers of any inclusion and diversity initiatives. And if doing the right thing isn’t a strong enough selling point, McKinsey points out that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability.”
Given what’s at stake with hundreds of thousands of women taking a professional pause, companies must show measurable progress to create a more representative workforce. Their economic viability may very well depend on their commitment to women.
3. Expand opportunities for mentorship, employee resource groups, and networking. Creating a culture that is welcoming and supportive of women requires genuine investment. It’s even more critical that those employees who’ve been able to maintain their jobs in the midst of the past year’s upheaval develop an even stronger network – especially with so many isolated from the office.
Encourage formal or informal mentorship pairings between women at different life and career stages to share advice. Beef up employee resource groups, particularly for working moms, to share best practices on juggling childcare, school, and career. Offer company-sponsored virtual networking sessions for women to learn about career opportunities beyond their current track, especially if they feel they need to dial back their professional ambitions in the near-term. Employers that support their employees’ life experiences beyond the confines of the office will see an increase in high performance compared to those organizations that don’t prioritize the workforce’s well-being.
4. Empower HR to offer alternate work schedules and job sharing. How many women would cite burnout as their top reason for dropping out of the workforce? As a society, we’ve become wedded to being always-available, call if it’s urgent, and work through the weekend to get the job done. In a survey by The Mom Project, 88% of respondents reported “flexibility to be as important, if not more so, than salary.” Convenient work hours, ongoing remote opportunities, and a focus on quality of performance vs. quantity of “on” time will be huge selling points for companies that have embraced the new realities of work-life integration.
If HR departments are given leverage to reformulate positions and offer alternate work schedules or job sharing, those organizations will have an edge in recruiting and retaining top women.
It’s easy to get bogged down in negative click-bait and the extreme challenges the last year has foisted on working women. However, the organizations that strategically focus on supporting women employees during the present crisis and for the long-term will be better positioned for post-pandemic success.
"With the right approach, companies can create a culture where women stay engaged in the workforce while balancing what seems to be a never-ending shutdown life."
"Employers that support their employees’ life experiences beyond the confines of the office will see an increase in high performance compared to those organizations that don’t prioritize the workforce’s well-being."
Jennifer Lemmert is a communications consultant, specializing in employee engagement and executive branding. A mom of two with a passion for amplifying women’s voices, she dropped out of the workforce to launch her own independent practice in the midst of the pandemic.
Read these other articles in the Advantage Consulting Quarterly
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Lockdown Lessons from a Career Consultant: How A Lot of Little Things Can Add Up to Something Great
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