women in the workplace

In the year-plus since the initial COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, workplaces and workforces have seen significant changes. Millions of employees have faced job loss – the US unemployment rate peaked at 14.8% in April 2020 and as of the latest jobs report, the US is still down 10 million jobs. At the same time, many have made the difficult decision to leave the workforce to handle family and personal responsibilities. And one common, unfortunate (and terrifying) trend over the past year is the unbelievable impact this has had on women and their careers.

Early COVID layoffs impacted industries disproportionately staffed by women. Many of the industries most affected by layoffs during the pandemic involve in-person activities such as dining out, teaching and providing child and health care, and typically have a higher proportion of female workers. According to the Pew Research Center, leisure and hospitality, education, health services and retail trade accounted for 59% of the total loss of nonfarm jobs from February to May 2020. These sectors also accounted for 47% of jobs held by women compared with 28% for men, exposing women to a higher risk of unemployment.

Additionally, women of color have faced some of the highest unemployment spikes and drops in US labor force participation since the pandemic began and have experienced slower signs of recovery. As of early March 2021, total employment is 9.7% lower for Black women, 8.6% lower for Hispanic women and 5.4% for white women compared to February 2020.

Many working women who haven’t been impacted by layoffs during this pandemic are now balancing increasing caregiving responsibilities while trying to maintain their work, often in a new work-from-home environment, which requires adjustment. They’ve found boundaries blurring between home and professional lives and with the pressure mounting from both sides, women have been squeezed in the middle. I recently saw a video featuring a mother bear trying to cross the road with her cubs and it made me think of all the ‘mama bears’ who spend every day juggling work and home schooling while trying to fit in a little time for their own career development. This tough balancing act has led an astounding one in four women to consider making the difficult decision during this pandemic to leave the workforce altogether or downshift their careers.

Not surprisingly, then, Women at Work research from SHRM found that 31% of female employed Americans personally know a woman who voluntarily left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic due to caregiving responsibilities.

Between job loss and voluntary exits, US female workforce participation has dropped to 57%, the lowest level since 1988 according to the National Women’s Law Center. Put into perspective, female workforce participation is the lowest it’s been since Reagan was president and big hair was stylish – and it isn’t expected to recover until 2024, a full two years after men recoup jobs lost due to the pandemic.

Given these staggering numbers, what can employers do to better support women and encourage continued workforce participation and career growth? In a previous blog post, we shared steps that can be taken at an organizational level to support female employees, but it’s just as important for managers and team leaders to create an environment in which all employees have equal opportunities for growth without sacrificing their personal and family responsibilities. Here are some best practices for managers to consider as we continue to navigate the pandemic and to promote an equal workplace for all long-term.

be candid and transparent

The past year has presented unimaginable challenges for all employees – men and women, parents and caregivers, managers and individual contributors. But many employees feel as though they’re facing challenges wrought by the pandemic on their own. We recently facilitated a dialog with one of our Randstad RiseSmart customers to commemorate Women’s History Month and to openly discuss barriers women are facing in developing their careers. During the session, some women expressed guilt about not being as productive as possible, asking teammates for help or having their online chat status go from ‘available’ to ‘away.’ Others have reported feeling numb or robotic going through the motions of the workday. The reality is, no employees are immune from pandemic-related stressors and disruptions.

Recent data found that nearly a year into the pandemic, overall employee focus had plummeted by 62%. It’s important for managers and team leaders to acknowledge this and be candid about their own challenges brought on by the pandemic. If managers are more transparent and empathize with the challenges all employees are facing, they can make it easier and more widely accepted for employees to admit when they’re struggling – and not hesitate to ask for help.

encourage flexible work arrangements

Research from CNBC and SurveyMonkey found that 15% of working women feel burned out all the time and 38% some of the time. Despite this, women are often hesitant to take time off or take advantage of flexible work arrangements. The research also shows that 39% of working women are concerned that opting for flexible work arrangements could harm their career goals – and this number jumps to 53% for women with children under the age of 18.

While organizations might have companywide policies allowing flexible work arrangements, it’s often up to managers to create a culture that supports this flexibility on their individual teams.   

One option to encourage flexibility is to ask employees to block time on their calendars when they might have personal or caregiving conflicts – such as getting children set up for the day with virtual learning or taking an elderly relative to a doctor’s appointment. For example, late afternoon and early evening hours are often critical for working parents. This is the time when younger children wake up from naps and virtual learning is wrapping up. It’s a time when parents typically prepare dinner and need time to spend with their children before they go to bed. Making it known across the team that this is a time to avoid scheduling meetings can create a culture of flexibility. It ensures that women and other employees with caregiving responsibilities are given equal access and visibility and will not be punished for not ‘showing up’ at a specific time.

Other ways to offer added flexibility include having set days without meetings – such as ‘no meeting Fridays’ that enable employees to get work done without interruptions, making a commitment to not checking email outside working hours and offering additional mental health and family care days during this challenging time.

For this tactic to work, top leadership at the organization must abide by and enforce no-meeting days, no matter what happens in the business. Managers can also consider making all meetings optional, allowing employees to know they can choose personal or family needs over work if needed – without backlash to the employee. When a manager herself declines a meeting because she must make lunch for her Zoom-schooled kids, letting her team know why she’s declining can send a powerful message that it’s okay to put your own needs first. Organizations we work with who offer this kind of flexibility are reducing burnout among employees and keeping caregiving employees – especially women – engaged, productive and in the workforce.

offer incentives for maintaining work-life balance

Beyond creating a team culture in which workplace flexibility is encouraged, managers can make it even more widely acceptable by offering employees incentives. Companies use their rewards and recognition programs to acknowledge and publicly call out good behavior. Most computer operating systems produce a weekly report visible to employees to show when and how long they worked. Consider having employees submit this report showing their compliance with no meeting days or after-hour emails and rewarding them with a small gift card.

Given added household responsibilities during the pandemic, managers and leaders can also consider offering stipends or reimbursements for childcare, tutoring, housekeeping and more as an incentive when employees take time off to spend with their families. Recent data from McKinsey found that women handle an average of 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking and cleaning.

Abbot Pharmaceuticals, which made Fortune’s list of the Best Workplaces in Healthcare has served a critical role in COVID-19 testing. To keep their employees focused on solving the pandemic crisis, they continued to offer on-site childcare at many of their facilities and tutoring for children of employees. According to Abbot’s EVP of HR, Mary Moreland, these perks have reduced employee stress. She recently told Fortune, ‘I can’t tell you how many times working mothers have come up to me, saying ‘I’m so happy to be here.’’

related content: prioritizing career wellness in 2021.

support equal career development opportunities

For many working mothers – and parents in general – the past year has been about survival and simply getting through each day juggling work, virtual learning and household tasks. Unfortunately, as a result, career goals have been put on the back burner and seen as a luxury rather than a priority for many women. In fact, Women at Work research from SHRM found that 27% of female employees with caregiving responsibilities feel their professional development has been stifled during the pandemic, compared to 10% of men.

Whether women are leaving the workforce or putting their career growth goals on hold, this can have a long-lasting impact on women’s equality in the workplace. And as the pandemic subsides and organizations gradually reopen their offices, women are at risk of falling even further behind.

A recent Gartner survey shows that 64% of managers believe office workers are higher performers than remote workers and are likely to give in-office workers a higher raise than those who work from home. Additionally, CHROs report that men are tending to return to their workplace while women are skewing toward continuing to work remotely. If men are more likely to work from the office, and managers retain a bias toward in-office workers, there’s a chance that managers might over-reward male employees at the expense of female employees and the gap between men and women will only widen.

One way to maintain a level playing field between men and women, as well as remote and in-office workers – both now and in the future – is by offering equal opportunities for learning and career development. These include making microlearning courses and formal skilling resources available to all employees, so that they can learn on their own time and build skills that will support both your organization’s growth and their own long-term employability. Employees should also have opportunities to work in internal project teams and take on gig work within the organization. Project-based work can be an ideal solution for female and other employees who indicate they might leave the workforce due to family priorities, as it encourages retention while offering flexibility and the opportunity to learn new skills. Recognize, however, that access to tools and opportunities will not be enough. Many stressed employees will need explicit permission and encouragement from managers and perhaps dedicated time outlined by the company to focus on their careers.

related content: 3 ways to drive remote employee engagement with reskilling and upskilling.

check in with employees

Even if your team and organization have a long list of initiatives in place to support women in the workplace, sometimes the most important step you can take is simply to check in with employees. Outside formal 1:1 meetings or performance reviews, make it a priority to schedule regular, 15- to 30-minute check-ins with employees on your team to touch base on a personal level. During this time, ask about any challenges they might be facing, either at work or personally, and identify ways your team and organization can better support them. This can help show employees you truly care, encouraging them to stay with your team and grow their careers long-term.

The pandemic’s impact on women’s workforce participation is likely to be long-lasting. Any steps your organization and managers can take to support women and create an equal workplace for all will positively contribute to women’s career growth and broader economic recovery.

jeanne schad.

talent solutions and strategy practice leader

31 March 2021

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