Women and the Pandemic

Why They Have Left in Droves

The pandemic has been especially hard on women. As the pandemic took hold and home responsibilities increased, they left the workforce at four times the rate of men. Most firms made few or no adjustments for women even though they were often supporting children with remote education, taking care of very young children, or helping their elder parents. Women were expected to work the same hours and in the same manner as they did before the pandemic. This has led to women leaving the workforce altogether. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, women who make up 39% of global employment account for 54% of overall job losses since the pandemic began. 

This loss sets back decades-long efforts to increase the number of women in the workforce and adds to the global talent shortage.  Women have steadily moved up in organizations and before the pandemic accounted for 51 percent of all workers in high-paying management, professional, and related occupations. Many filled critical positions in health care, engineering, software development, design, marketing, and project management. They were also the backbone of the hospitality and food establishments.

Their loss will be hard for organizations to overcome. This is is especially true for the hospitality and food industries that have always paid much less than other organizations. I just visited my local coffee shop and found that they are closing at 4 pm rather than at 10 pm because of the lack of staff. Few firms have adopted women-friendly practices, nor have they increased pay or benefits. Without changes to pay, benefits, or working practices, recruiters are handicapped and are finding it very hard to recruit women back into the workforce.

What I outline below is not new, but these are the major areas where changes need to occur if we are to overcome this tragic loss of significant talent.

  1. Organizational Culture and Benefits

    Numerous surveys show that women are looking for very different benefits than men. Some of the specific things they are looking for include job sharing, part-time virtual work, flexible business hours, and paid and unpaid work interruptions for child care and eldercare.

    Women are also looking for flexible organizational culture. They seek non-hierarchical organizations with a reputation for collaborative decision-making. If your organization, like so many, has a lot of men at the top, this may be a problem.  But often lower down, there are women managers and women-led teams that offer those collaborative environments. Every recruiter should understand how women contribute to their organization and what roles may be most attractive.

    Ignoring women, thinking they are the same as men, assuming we all want to same things are very dangerous practices.  Beginning to tailor your strategies and tactics to the dominant workforce makes good sense to me.

  2. Increased benefits and Pay

    Women are not paid the same as men, and this also influences their career choices.  Women are paid 80 cents for every dollar men are paid. In the U.S., in dollars, this means women bring home $3.27 less per hour than men. The median hourly wage is $15.67 for women and $18.94 for men. And, women earn less than men at every pay level.

    However, hourly pay equity may not be the whole story. Rather it might be having organizations take on the costs of childcare or eldercare. Traditionally these are expenses that make it more economical for women to stay home than return to work.

    Organizations need to look at their compensation strategies and tailor them flexibly to the different needs of workers and, especially, women.

  3. Flexible, Virtual Work

    Another major cause of high turnover is the lack of flexible working hours. Even though women can often work at any time, conventional practices and HR policies usually mean women have to adhere to normal working hours. This places a huge burden on those trying to help children with schoolwork or taking care of a parent.

    As firms return to normal, they are also asking workers to return to the office, even when their work can be done anywhere and at any time. There has been pushback on this as many workers have adjusted to remote work and find it not only makes them more productive but frees up time that was used in their commute and lowers the cost of travel, food, and clothes.

    For women, this has been a major reason not to return to work.

  4. Burnout

    Even women who can juggle their schedules find themselves working into the wee hours of the morning to complete work tasks and meet deadlines. Burnout and overwork are contributors to the high levels of turnover. Firms need to develop work schedules and strategies that allow women greater flexibility to spread work out over longer time periods or provide resources so they can avoid working long hours. Work may be spread over more workers or deadlines prioritized according to need rather than to a schedule. Attendance at team meetings can be prioritized so that people who are not critical can use their time elsewhere.

The pandemic may be the turning point for organizations. It may cause HR leaders and business managers to reassess their assumptions and change what they practice. Attitudes about work, coupled with both technology and the habits created during the pandemic, have opened possibilities that were unknown before. Organizations will need to make changes, adopt new practices, and even reshape their cultures to encourage women to return.

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