The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) monthly jobs report revealed that while men have recouped all their labor force losses since the start of the pandemic, there are still over 1 million fewer women at work as of January 2022 as there were in February 2020, according to data analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
“The issues behind the ‘shecession’ are multifaceted and they have deep, deep roots in our culture,” says Liz Elting, founder of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping marginalized communities including women advance. “The workplace has never been geared toward the thriving of women. And the pandemic just made that worse, exposing the systemic bias wherein women with working husbands were assumed to be expandable, and women with children were assumed to not be career-focused.”
Considering that employers are facing a steep talent shortage, it seems like a win-win solution would be to attract some of those talented women back into the workforce. But either employers haven’t quite figured out how to do so, or women candidates are being much more selective and thoughtful about where and how they want to work in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Bringing women back is a mandate for most companies right now
“Women, and especially women of color, are realizing we’re more in demand than ever before,” says Deepa Purushothaman, author of THE FIRST, THE FEW, THE ONLY: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. “I have women who tell me that they get up to three or four calls a week for new opportunities at senior levels. And so I just think we’re being more choiceful in where we go and where we stay.”
Of course, not all women are being courted after dropping out or scaling back, says Elting – many companies are simply still not hiring enough women. “Women aren’t failing to apply for these jobs. The problem is that most of the areas where women are getting hired are in sectors like hospitality, retail, and food service, not long-term career or professional roles,” she says.
If you have roles to fill, and you want to fill them with talented women, here are some hiring and workplace strategies to embrace:
1. Strive to have more women in leadership roles
“The best way to support women at work is to have women in significant leadership positions who can ensure women’s voices are heard and women’s interests are considered,” says Elting.
If for no other reason, consider this: a 2021 Monster poll found that 58% of women would turn down a job at a company with no female leaders.
Yet, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report. The pandemic, with women bearing the brunt of childcare and other caregiving, has only made it more likely for this gap to widen.
But even companies that are trying to do better and promote more women, says Purushothaman, don’t always set those women up for success. “It has to be more than just placing a woman, or a woman of color in particular, in a difficult or a toxic situation and telling her to thrive and survive. We are finding that doesn’t work; it has to be done differently.”
The bottom line: Employers who are serious about making improvements must not only commit to hiring women for leadership roles, but also nurture their careers, says Elting.
2. Reshape company culture, one hire at a time
“The entire corporate structure is based on this idea of conform, perform, produce,” says Purushothaman. And that’s what makes it so challenging for women who enter the workforce from a fundamentally different set of experiences and perspectives.
One of the key problems is bias against women at work, especially the motherhood penalty, says Elting. “It’s always been there, but the pandemic exacerbated its impact. Making it so these higher-level positions work well for women as they go through motherhood is the only way we’re going to retain women, get them to the highest level and then attack this problem and solve problem long term.”
Changing the culture starts with actively listening to the women on your team about their pain points, and inviting women leaders to the table to help engineer the solutions.
Finding out what women need at work can happen through:
- One-on-one meetings
- Employee surveys
- Idea-sharing forums
- Women-focused employee resource groups
“There is no easy fix and or easy answer or everyone would be doing it,” says Purushothaman, who is also the co-founder of nFormation, an organization that provides brave, safe, new space for professional women of color. But she’s optimistic that there is more effort and more energy around setting up Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and offering safe spaces where people can come together and speak their truth freely. “It’s part of why we created nFormation, to create almost that ERG experience with women across industries, outside of a company structure,” she says.
3. Create safe and inclusive workplaces for women at work
Between “Me, Too,” the social justice movements, and the pandemic, huge conversations have opened up for women and women of color around trauma at work, and what happens when there are microaggressions and racism and corporate cultures that don’t always make those groups feel like they belong.
But there’s more work to be done. “A lot of women still end up opting out when they tell their truth,” says Purushothaman. “The whole culture and processes have to be redesigned if we’re truly going to support women of color.”
She’s specifically referring to how companies handle women who report sexual harassment or racism. “Companies that are doing it well are really trying to be thoughtful about bringing in outside investigators and outside people to look at cases of inappropriate behavior. Or looking at their data in a really different way to be proactive, versus having an incident come up and then having to be reactive,” she says.
Employers need to be thinking of these things if they want to create a work environment where women truly feel welcomed, respected, and protected.
4. Acknowledge the challenges of hybrid work for women
Although hybrid and remote work has been a blessing for many women who have been clamoring for at-home workdays for years, there are some nuances for companies to work out if they want to make it a viable option going forward. “I think the challenge we’re going to see is there are going to be preferences for people who are in the office. There will be biases for women who may not be returning to the office in the same way as their male counterparts,” says Purushothaman.
What’s more, is that digital platforms can make it even harder for women to feel heard. “On Zoom, a lot of women of color have shared with me that they’re talked over more, and their ideas are passed over more. Those things that we thought would be better if we were not in person are just as bad, if not worse, online,” says Purushothaman.
The other aspect of hybrid or remote work is figuring out how to make employees feel like they belong, and that they are not passed over for opportunities. “It’s the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ that is very typical. Being seen is such an important part of corporate life,” says Purushothaman. The big question that employers must address is what does it mean to be seen in a hybrid workplace? And are we putting tools and resources in place to ensure that hybrid workers, who will likely skew female, are kept in the loop and treated the same as in-person staffers?
5. Reconcile flexibility with performance metrics
The pandemic showed a lot of employers that our lives aren’t as compartmentalized as we want to believe – especially for women. “What it did was blow open the idea that we have private lives and lives outside of work, and that it all bleeds together and it’s messy and uncomfortable,” says Purushothaman.
From a work perspective, as long as the work is getting done, companies should be thinking about creating new ways of evaluating people. That said, it’s important to also ensure that flexible work hours isn’t code language for working more. Many women experienced burnout during the pandemic, squeezing in work before breakfast, between helping their kids with remote learning, and late at night.
“That’s what a lot of the corporate women I work with suggested the pattern was. But they’re exhausted, and that day is extended to 14 or 16 hours long,” says Purushothaman.
Employers have to not only emphasize their flexible work structures, but also set realistic expectations and have a system of regular check-ins to make sure employees have the support they need.
6. Focus on holistic health and wellness
One positive to come out of the pandemic was an awareness that personal wellness – both mental and physical – is tied to success at work. “Health has to be part of the equation, and there’s an expanded definition of what it means to be healthy and what it means to be successful,” says Purushothaman.
In fact, in addition to salary and culture, she feels that wellness offerings could end up being a key differentiator for women candidates choosing a job, whether it’s stress-reducing tools and resources, mental health and other types of counseling, caretaking support, and/or professional coaching.
“Part of what has to change is this idea that you can lose yourself and be good at your job and be healthy. I think those things are all connected,” says Purushothaman. And the very nature of being a woman in the workplace does have a direct impact on physical and mental well-being. “The stress of not being seen and heard, the stress of conforming, the pressure of having all eyes on you as a woman or woman of color – these are real things that we have to talk about.”
7. Make an unwavering commitment to equal pay
At the end of the day, one of the most important things women want is to be treated with respect, and equal pay is at the heart of that. In 2021, women were still earning just 82 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts earned. One reason could be that women and men do not start off their careers on an even playing field: The average post-college salaries for the Class of 2020 was $64,022 for men, and $52,266 for women, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
“Companies should look at their entire employee population, and make sure that women are being paid the same for the same job,” says Elting. But also, when they do hire women, the pay offer should not be based on what the person was making in their previous job. “Often the woman wasn’t paid as much somewhere else as the man was for the same job. And then the new employer that is hiring bases the woman’s pay on what she was making rather than what others at that level at the company are making.” And thus the cycle continues.
After committing to an assessment of current employee pay, providing as much salary transparency as possible can help women feel confident that they are being paid fairly.
Become an employer who knows what women at work need to thrive
As employers navigate post-pandemic hiring in a tight labor market, it’s crucial to recognize that what women need is largely the same as what they needed all along:
- A viable career path
- Equal pay
- Respect in the workplace
Arm yourself with strategies and tools to support women at work. By showcasing the ways in which you are committed to supporting women – and promoting more women to leadership roles – you can achieve a more balanced and inclusive culture.