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Flexible Work Options, Career Development Can Keep Women in the Workforce

A woman and a little girl are using a video call on a computer.

Handling caregiving responsibilities and a job can be overwhelming—something that has become starkly clear for women during the COVID-19 pandemic. One in 5 workers in the U.S. know a woman who has voluntarily left the workforce during the pandemic because of such responsibilities, according to new research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Women have been pushed out of work in industries that have shuttered, such as retail and hospitality, which tend to employ females in higher numbers, noted Michelle Nettles, chief people and culture officer at Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup. Women also have taken on more responsibilities at home, including schooling their children. 

"Data is already showing the risk of a 'she-cession' is real" and weighted against women of color in particular, she said.

"We need to be more intentional about understanding what workers want, and especially what women want," Nettles said. "Lack of flexible working, lack of role models, gendered career paths, and challenges accessing sponsors and influential networks were already holding women back."

A report from Perceptyx, released March 8 and based on responses from 1,000 U.S. workers, identified what it called "critical actions" employers should take to support women in the workplace:

Allow for a hybrid work environment. Employers should be aware, Perceptyx's report stated, that they likely will see fewer women applying for jobs if the positions they post are only for onsite work.

A majority of women surveyed changed their return-to-work preferences from six months ago—48 percent have become much less or somewhat less likely to want to return to the physical workplace full time. Only 26 percent said they are more likely to want to do so.

Workplace flexibility does not have to be limited to hybrid or full-time work-from-home options.

ManpowerGroup's Work My Way program offers employees scheduling flexibility, Nettles said, and the staffing company is working with its manufacturing clients to offer employees more shift choices "so workers who have to go into the workplace can benefit from flexibility, too."

Minimize promotion and compensation bias. Both men and women are concerned that they will miss out on career development and progression if they are not physically in the workplace. Perceptyx found that women who work remotely at least part of the time were 27 percent less likely to have received a promotion in the last year than their male counterparts in any working situation. Women also were 20 percent less likely to have received a raise at least equal to what they had received in the past.

"For managers with team members in multiple locations, intentionally recognizing employees who may not be in the office is a new challenge," Perceptyx reported.

Female respondents to SHRM's survey were more likely than their male counterparts to say they think their professional development has been stifled because of caregiving responsibilities since the pandemic began (27 percent versus 10 percent). And more than half of women with caregiving responsibilities (51 percent) agreed it is more challenging to be successful during the pandemic, while 28 percent of male respondents said the same. The survey was conducted in February with 536 U.S. workers.

The best way employers can support women, Nettles noted, is to encourage learning and "their ability to develop skills to stay employable."  

A survey ManpowerGroup conducted in 2019 with women in eight countries found that time is the biggest barrier to learning—especially for those with young children. ManpowerGroup created "learning Fridays" and "Always Learning" campaigns to promote online microlearning modules.

'A Systemic Issue' 

Employers looking to attract women to their organizations and retain female employees who have dialed back their job responsibilities to handle caregiving should focus on their organizations' resources and support systems, said Christy Pambianchi, chief HR officer at Verizon.

She pointed to a Verizon survey, released in February and conducted with 2,001 female U.S. workers, that found 62 percent who plan to re-enter the workforce said they will look for a position in a field that offers more opportunity for skills development and advancement.

"This a systemic issue, and we can no longer ask moms to choose between their family and work or make their career expendable in a crisis," she said.

Verizon also found that about 1 in 3 women with children say they have spent more time helping with schoolwork, supporting their child's overall wellness and generally taking care of their child than before the pandemic.

"At Verizon, we have always offered comprehensive benefits and policies to ensure our female colleagues have the support they need to succeed at work and on the home front. However, it was clear we had to increase our efforts to keep women working to their full potential."

In addition to employee resource groups such as Parents and Caregivers Together, Pambianchi said Verizon expanded its backup care policies, introduced caregiver leave and offered part-time options with full benefits.

A welcoming culture for new mothers also is important.

Female executives from Medela Americas, Mamava and Milk Stork issued an open letter to employers on March 3 calling for basic protections and benefits for new parents, such as parental leave and dedicated lactation space. Medela Americas is a breast pump brand with corporate headquarters in Baar, Switzerland. Burlington, Vt.-based Mamava is a provider of freestanding lactation sites, and Milk Stork in Palo Alto, Calif., is a breast milk shipping company for those on business travel.

"Balancing work and new motherhood today is stressful, unsustainable—and for those who have a choice of whether or not to work, perhaps not worth it," the executives said in the letter posted on the New Moms' Healthy Return website.

"As our country and economy look to grow and move forward, we must address how we bring women back to work. How do we account for the career consequences that result from time away? How do we support single mothers and those who are the primary breadwinners for their families? How will issues working mothers face today impact the next generation?"


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