Emerging Issues

Women are Leaving the Workforce amid the Pandemic. What can we do?

December 12, 2020

An unprecedented exodus of women from the workforce is upon us and the pandemic is only partly to blame. The real culprit for this mass departure may come as a surprise: we can trace it back to the workplace policies and work cultures that we have long fostered. Luckily, it’s not too late to fix things.

According to the recently-released annual “Women in the Workplace” joint study by McKinsey & Company and Lean In, more than one in four women are considering abandoning the workforce or curbing their career ambitions. Some of these departures haven’t been voluntary: Black and Latina women have disproportionately faced the brunt of pandemic-induced job losses. Meanwhile, industries like technology have furloughed or laid off more women than men in the pandemic. However, the pandemic has exacerbated the uneven household and childcare responsibilities that we expect of women, forcing them to choose between their family and career. Amid this new reckoning, women are less willing to tolerate long-standing gender inequities in terms of how they feel devalued in the workplace due to pay and promotions. Why depend on subjective (and potentially unfair) decisions for their career advancement especially when their energy could be focused elsewhere? The pandemic has presented working women their options and given them a chance to reset their trajectory. Overwhelmingly, women are choosing their family over their grim work prospects.

Allowing women to leave the workplace, even if it is voluntary, has major consequences that are detrimental to women. In the long term, a significant loss of working women may lead to lower wages and greater difficulty in finding work when women want to return. After all, people who don’t have as many family responsibilities, usually men or single adults, will take over the roles once occupied by women. Over time, most openings will be low-paying or entry-level positions, moving women further away from ever reaching pay parity.

If we want women to stay in the workforce, companies need to revisit their employee policies and allow for greater work-life flexibility. First, working mothers are facing burnout from balancing traditional household roles including childcare and work. It should be noted that women of colour are in a particularly demanding position as they are more likely to hold childcare and elder care responsibilities. Additionally, Black women are more likely to endure the death of a loved one due to the pandemic. These factors point to the pivotal role that an employer can play in helping their most marginalized and vulnerable employees at a critical time.

Giving employees the flexibility of working from home rather than on-site or at the office isn’t enough to substantively support women workers. Instead, workplaces should permit flexible working hours beyond a 9 AM to 5 PM schedule, ideally at the worker’s discretion. This would allow employees to care for sick or aging parents, and parents to pick up and drop off their school-aged children without relying on babysitters, nannies, and daycares who are operating at reduced capacities. If an organization’s flexible working rules can’t accommodate regular school drop-offs and pick-ups, then childcare subsidies would be helpful in giving workers peace of mind while they remain productive. It’s also important to remember that not all women have the luxury of working from home. For those who are essential workers or who must work on-site, childcare subsidies or on-premise childcare can alleviate the stress of balancing childcare and work. Creating these policies, educating employees on the rules, and encouraging staff to take advantage of them ensure that workplaces and employees can mutually unlock their full potential. It’s pertinent that employers train managers and other senior staff on recognizing microaggressions and exercising empathy, fostering a compassionate workplace culture that reflects the policies that the company offers.

When employees feel supported in overcoming difficult circumstances that the pandemic may have brought on, whether it’s caring for children or a sick parent, they are in a better position to focus on their job and remain productive. Ultimately, this benefits all parties thanks to solid job satisfaction, job performance, and employee retention. There are costs, after all, to rehire and retrain employees. There’s also enormous value in maintaining workplace diversity given the multitude of perspectives, ideas, and strengths that diverse employees can offer. We are at the cusp of a monumental workforce shift sparked by the pandemic, but it’s in our power to shape what that looks like and how it ends.