“I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘she-cession,’” says Georgene Huang, somewhat begrudgingly. As the co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss, a career community and job site for women, Huang is all too familiar with the reality behind the phrase.
Throughout 2020, as the pandemic rocked industries and changed everything about the way we work, women — and disproportionately, women of color — got the short end of the stick. Nearly three million American women exited the workforce, and accounted for 55% of overall job loss.
“I hate to say that women dropped out of the workforce because it feels more like they were forced out,” Huang says. That happened for two reasons, she explains: women predominantly work in the sectors of the economy hit hardest by the pandemic like services, hospitality and retail; and Zoom-schooling required at-home supervision for kids. “Most American families rely on two incomes, and it was the person who made less money or had less power in the workplace who had to drop out.”
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Now, as the world inches toward the end of the pandemic and the market prepares for an anticipated surge of available jobs, the question looms large: can we get all these women back to work?
“The challenge is not just about getting a person a job,” says Cate Luzio, the founder and CEO of Luminary, a professional-development platform for women. “It’s about getting them access to education and resources and introductions and a community. Because when people left their workplace, they were also leaving behind their community.”
That community, Luzio says, can’t be recreated solely by women fighting to get back to work. It will take plenty of effort, understanding, and investment from employers who want to attract and retain this valuable talent pool. But step one is simple: listen to women’s needs.
Boost benefits (and flexibility)
As job opportunities start to flood the market, companies will have to do more than offer a steady paycheck to attract top talent, particularly when it comes to women and other workers who no longer feel a need to compromise.
“The number of high-quality jobs entering the workplace far exceeds the number of available workers,” says Allison Robinson, founder and CEO of The Mom Project, a talent marketplace that connects women with flexible job opportunities. “If you’re highly skilled, you can write your own ticket and be choosy. You’re in a position of power.”
From long-term flexibility (nearly 60% of employees have said they’ll quit their job if forced to return to the office) to expanded benefits, employees are asking for what they want — especially following a year that proved they can be productive outside of the office.
“Paid family leave became super important this year, not just to moms, but to all the people with sick relatives and parents,” says Huang. “Part of being empowered as a worker is being able to ask about the whole benefits package.”
These coveted perks can create employee loyalty. That’s why The Mom Project — which Robinson launched in 2016 after learning that 43% of top female talent exits the workforce within a year of having a child — recently expanded family benefits for her staff, including paid parental leave and in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and adoption assistance.
Robinson hopes the move will also encourage other companies to see these benefits as a competitive advantage in a fast-changing professional landscape. Eighty-six percent of women will become moms by the time they turn 44, and it’s anticipated that most American workers will be self-employed by 2025, Robinson says. All signs point to a future of more flexibility and support, not less.
“There’s this overall shift in what a career means,” Robinson says, adding that The Mom Project has recently seen an increase in outreach from some of the nation’s largest companies.
“They see the Bureau of Labor Statistics data and they know that this trend [of women leaving the workforce] is both catastrophic on a human level, but also creates significant GDP loss,” Robinson says. “Corporate leaders are stepping up, and the investment levels specifically around benefits that support women are increasing. It’s making me feel optimistic.”
Providing support for the hardest hit
Corporate America may already be celebrating a post-pandemic business boom, but the road back to normal will be much longer for plenty of workers.
“I’m most concerned for hourly workers, where the jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality have been a lot slower coming back,” says Robinson. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about how we can upskill those women.”
Last fall, The Mom Project introduced an initiative called RISE, with the goal of providing scholarships to 10,000 women of color over the next three years, giving them access to technology-certificate training programs that will position them for entry- and mid-level jobs at tech companies. In a similar show of support, Luzio’s team at Luminary has partnered with job site Indeed to launch a fellowship program that will provide ongoing education and professional support to 150 women, 50% of whom will be women of color.
No one felt the economic impact of the pandemic more than women of color. By April 2020, unemployment rates spiked to 16.7% for Hispanic women and 16.4% for Black women, compared to 15% for white women. For women of color who have remained in the workforce, 51% are currently struggling with feelings of burnout, according to a survey by Fairygodboss and nFormation, and nearly half are considering leaving their jobs.
“It’s the same reasons why women were more likely to leave the workforce than men,” Huang says. “Women of color have less power, fewer good jobs, are paid less, have less incentive to stay.” Fifty percent of respondents to the Fairygodboss survey said they’d stay in their role if they were given a raise or a promotion, and 29% would stay if a more flexible work policy was implemented.
As businesses nationwide are increasingly focused on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and fighting to signal a commitment to supporting workers of color, meeting these employees’ wants and needs will be crucial in both recruiting and retaining talent.
“Employers that are trying to prioritize diversity right now have to be more flexible in terms of what working arrangements they accept,” Huang says. “I’m not sure you really have a choice.”
Creating a new path forward
Even if employers offer workplace flexibility, the challenges of existing and excelling in a hybrid environment may be greater for female workers.
“There’s a big concern that those who are physically going to the office are going to get access to more opportunities,” Luzio says. “Favoritism and exclusion happen at every company, and this could really be a massive problem for women who may not be able to run back to the office — like many of their male colleagues might — because they’re handling other burdens at home.”
To ensure that women (and remote workers in general) don’t get overlooked for opportunities, employers will need to focus on identifying and investing in talent within their organizations.
“If a person is talented but doesn’t have all of the skills to move forward, develop them,” Luzio says. “Give them the skills they need. It will create more well-rounded, happy employees, better retention rates, and will save companies from going out and overpaying to recruit new talent.”
Internal mentorship and informal relationships are necessary to nurture female talent, Luzio says, but she also encourages companies to invest in upskilling staff, even if it requires relying on outside resources and organizations. “If an employee isn’t a great public speaker and needs more gravitas to be in front of clients, Luminary has workshops and sessions to help them gain that. But the company pays, and it creates a win-win: the employee feels good, and the company has created loyalty.”
Still, female employees need to advocate for themselves in order to find their best career path, perhaps even more so than in a traditional work setting.
“On Zoom, no one has advantage over anyone else, and there’s only one conversation taking place,” Huang says. “But so much relationship-building happens in sidebar conversations in conference rooms. So to advocate for yourself virtually in a hybrid world, it’s not an even playing field.”
Luzio advises that women be proactive in asking for what they want from an employer in terms of a career path — and to recognize when it’s time to move on.
“Women can’t put their heads down and think someone’s going to tap them on the shoulder,” she says. “Keep your head up, keep that hand raised. And if you’ve got your hand raised and you’re still not getting the opportunities, you’re at the wrong company.”