The impact of the pandemic has been uneven, inequitably impacting women and their progress and participation in the workforce. From navigating shifting childcare and eldercare needs to new perceptions of how and where work should take place, women are redefining their expectations of work and the environment in which they can best thrive. And as the talent market continues to experience strain, HR leaders are looking for any advantage.
Understanding changes in workforce participation
Research shared during ADP’s recent Women@Work event examined gains made by men and women in the labor market since the pandemic began and found some stark differences. During the pandemic, more than 10.6 million women lost their jobs or left the labor force, compared to 9 million men—and a full recovery has proven elusive. Before the pandemic, women made up 46% of the workforce but took 53% of the job losses due to COVID. As of March 2022, while men have recouped all their job losses, women have lost ground.
While men and women have largely recovered lost ground in certain sectors, such as information technology and professional services, women are experiencing a slower recovery elsewhere. In industries where women have long held advantages, such as hospitality, education, healthcare and childcare, their share is falling.
The labor force participation rate for women is still about a percentage point lower than it was prior to the pandemic. This might seem small, but it translates to thousands of jobs. If the employment mix had remained constant during the pandemic, it would equate to an additional 300,000 jobs for women today. With progress having built over time, the decline is disheartening. However, it presents a critical opportunity to understand the trends behind women’s participation in the workforce to help foster a full and inclusive recovery.
To better understand these trends, we need to dig into why women have left the workforce over the past three years in higher numbers than their male counterparts. The first and most obvious reason is that women are often still the primary caretakers in most households. When children can’t go to school or daycare, or a family member is sick, it’s often the woman who must step in and fill the caregiving gap. Lagging wages could be slowing the return to work for women as well, especially with rising costs of living.
How can HR leaders create progress for women at work?
Increasing female participation in the workforce isn’t just a “nice thing to do.” It’s crucial to economic recovery. To bring more women back, HR leaders and management must consider how they can address the needs of women at work, as well as the needs of their families and communities.
First, prioritize the obstacles that women face (which many men face as well!). Take caregiving, for example, such as caring for a child with COVID-19 or the flu, or eldercare responsibilities, including attending medical appointments. Support here might include expanded benefit offerings, increased flexibility for schedules, additional paid time off or employee stipends that might be needed to support their families’ wellness. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that workers want the flexibility to balance work and personal priorities as best they can, not according to a rigid 9-to-5 schedule. It’s about autonomy and a better integration of work and life. In industries that are predominantly staffed by women, and that haven’t recovered as strongly, many jobs cannot be performed remotely, which further narrows the pool of talent willing to take on those positions. HR executives might consider ways to create more flexibility, whether there’s opportunity to introduce a hybrid dynamic or ways to consider flexible scheduling to ease those frustrations. Or perhaps this opens discussions about shifting roles and skills, to help create more opportunity for mobility.
Second, HR leaders can take an active role in encouraging openness about mental health in general and stress in particular. Globally, stress at work is at critical levels, with ADP Research Institute’s study finding 67% of workers are experiencing it at least once a week. Part of that stress is due to the ups and downs of the pandemic, for sure. But it’s also stress that’s tied to the typical work schedule that perhaps came to a boiling point during the pandemic. Women need leaders who are in tune with their needs, trained to understand the challenges they might be experiencing and willing to address them. Flexibility and understanding should be modeled at the top and carried down to the team level.
Another important consideration is the notion of visibility as it relates to flexibility. In a remote or hybrid environment, where women might be working flexible schedules to accommodate other demands on their time, visibility in the workplace can become a concern. Women need the assurance that flexible work dynamics won’t impede their career progress. This might mean that HR needs to put mechanisms in place to help leaders frequently check in with their team members and better connect in the virtual setting, or more formal mentorship programs to help support those who work remotely.
Continue to listen and adapt
As women reenter a post-pandemic workforce or look for better jobs with more flexibility, they are juggling a tremendous number of priorities. HR leaders can help employers understand that unique challenge and put programs in place to support them and create more opportunity. It starts with understanding what their priorities are and offering resources to address them, from flexible work arrangements to career development programs. The path forward is in listening and adapting—and continuing that process without an end.