Before we were hit with an economic shutdown from the pandemic, there were nearly 10 million mothers of young children in the labor force in 2019. In March of 2020, many employers furloughed, laid off, restructured, and shifted to remote work. Over 1.1 million people left the workforce between August and September of 2020, and most of them were women — approximately 865,000 women compared with 216,000 men.
The media is calling it the “Pink Collar Recession” and, in addition to the 865,000 women who left the workforce last year, according to LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace” 2020 report, one in four women were also considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic intensified challenges that women already faced as the support that enabled working mothers to spend 40 hours a week outside of the home in their jobs—school and childcare—shut down.
Research that goes back decades shows that employees who work for companies with an equal balance of male and female members of management are happier. Gender balance, especially in leadership, also has significant economic implications. It boosts bottom-line results, drives growth with new customer insights, and enhances productivity with better talent acquisition and retention. Companies whose executive teams are more gender balanced report higher profitability and return on equity.
One of the primary reasons more women left the workplace in 2020 is due to the burden of unpaid care: shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids and parents in the household—which is disproportionately carried by women. With a future talent pool of over half a million women who are currently not working, companies are beginning to realize that the shift to create a culture of inclusivity and flexibility that better accommodates working parents should happen sooner rather than later.
Consider focusing on or expanding efforts in the following areas:
Reevaluate productivity and performance expectations. In order for working mothers and women in leadership roles (and everyone else working through this crisis) to succeed, we have to set a sustainable pace of work.
Creative flexibility. We’ve talked to some company leaders that offer “COVID-19 holidays” (essential floating paid days off) to give parents time to prepare for the new school year, be present during school-specific holidays (teacher education days), and some companies that close for business one Friday a month. Other companies have offered flex hours for working parents so they can work in the evenings or early mornings around their children’s school schedule.
Give managers the authority to offer time off at their discretion. Good managers know their teams, and they know when their teams are struggling. If an employee has to use unpaid leave time to get a COVID vaccine, monitor children who are remote schooling (or preparing to return to the classroom), or they simply need a day to recharge, being able to offer paid time off takes away part of the burden.
Offer support. This could be in the form of childcare assistance, wellness programs, and work-life balance policies. It could also look like career development, educational opportunities, and new manager training.
We’ll need to get buy-in from senior leadership, but we must also encourage our company leaders to model flexibility in their own work lives. When employees feel that senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
The bottom line is that we will have to work harder to recruit and retain female talent. Setting up programs for working parents, childcare assistance, flexible hours, remote work options—these can become part of a parent-friendly workplace culture and your employer brand that can give you and your team an advantage over your competitors.
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