Many Women Aren’t Returning to the Workplace. Here’s How We Can Get Them Back.

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The pandemic caused hordes of women to leave the workforce due to family responsibilities. Many do not return. Here’s what companies can do to give women the paths to success they need.

As the US economy continues to recover from the pandemic and many companies are looking for new workers, many women no longer see a place for themselves in many industries. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 46.4% of new job gains in May 2022 with 181,000 jobs, but still fall short compared to the pre-pandemic labor market in 2020 .Female jobs now account for 88% of the 822,000 net jobs lost since the pandemic began.

Lean In and McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace report found that one in three women considered changing or leaving their job in 2021, compared to one in four in 2020.

So what makes them think about leaving or not coming back?

Related: 3 Steps Leaders Can Take to Stop Making Women Choose Between Family and Career

The “pain for motherhood”

The motherhood penalty is a phrase coined by sociologists who believe that working mothers experience disadvantages in pay, perceived competition, and benefits relative to childless women. Living through Covid-19 has exposed the many responsibilities that mothers have. Many working mothers were forced to reduce their hours—or quit altogether—to balance work with childcare obligations, homeschooling, and other caregiving duties. They had to choose between work and family, and maintaining any semblance of work-life balance often became virtually impossible.

Related: Why Women Are Leaving Tech

Many childcare centers were closed during the lockdown, and early predictions have suggested the pandemic could be responsible for the loss of 4.5 million childcare places. This makes already limited childcare arrangements even more difficult to secure, thereby reducing the likelihood that women will return to full-time work.

Many of these factors explain why so many women were mentally and physically exhausted in 2021, with 42% of women reporting feeling burned out, prompting them to reassess their careers and what they want out of life .

Related: 10 Tips for Balancing Work and Motherhood

Women are tired of the constant struggle for equality

One of the reasons why women are leaving the workforce goes back further than the last two years. The challenge of trying to be more mobile, get better paying jobs and be recognized for their achievements is a battle that started long before the pandemic and has left them tired and mentally exhausted from the constant fight for equality.

It’s a simple fact: women’s achievements are not as consistently recognized in the workplace as men’s, and women continue to be underpaid for their work. This is not a huge revelation. Gender bias and inequality remain present in corporate offices and organizations. The constant struggle for change takes its toll.

Going back to the 2020 study by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, only 89 white women and 85 colored women they rose for every 100 men promoted to manager. And although the representation of women improved in 2020, inequalities remain. Promotions to managerial levels are not equitable for men.

Since 2016, these researchers have seen the same trend: Women are promoted to managers at much lower rates than men, making it difficult for companies to see progress among women in the workplace at these higher levels.

But we also need to address the fact that women of color are at an even greater disadvantage. The report found that between entry and senior executive levels, the representation of women of color is down 75%. As a result, women of color make up only 4% of C-suite leaders in the US

Have gender equality laws helped in the workplace? Things have improved, but it is clear that women are still being ignored and not valued on the same playing field.

Related: Two in five women considered they quit their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic

Can we seduce them again?

Many companies have found that having a more diverse workforce generally means they have a much more varied skill set on hand and are also more profitable. Top-level, gender-diverse teams are 21% more likely to have “above-average profitability” and to be significantly more engaged and productive overall.

Attracting women to work is not easy. Perhaps the work environment needs to be modernized to help women succeed. For example, 78 percent of women say they need more flexibility to return to work, according to a MetLife report, and 73 percent want better opportunities for career advancement.

A US government investment in child care could help pave the way for working mothers to return to the office. However, providing paid leave is also essential to ensure that a woman’s job is protected while raising a family. And while paid maternity leave is crucial, so is the equivalent for men. Paid paternity leave will give families the ability to choose who takes advantage of the work, rather than the responsibility falling primarily on women’s shoulders.

Related: Supercharge Women in the Workplace: Seizing Opportunities in ‘The New Normal’

There are many things leaders could do to entice women back into the workplace

One option is to explore their own unconscious biases and examine how their management style affects women, from how they communicate and promote themselves to what opportunities they provide. Leaders may also want to pay attention to hiring biases. When hiring, less emphasis should be placed on quickly weeding out women with gaps in their CV, as this may be related to childcare responsibilities or the effects of the pandemic.

Related: Excluding men is not the way to promote women

And while progress has been made with equal pay, efforts must go much further. As of 2021, the most recent figures show that the average white woman’s salary is about 82% of the average white man’s. The picture is even bleaker for black, Native American and Latina women, whose wages are about 63%, 60% and 55% of a white man’s, respectively.

Women need access to more flexible and innovative career opportunities to help them find the best paths to success. Now is the time for companies to encourage and support their female employees with new approaches to working life. Employers who do this will see the benefits of having a more diverse and versatile workforce, leading the way for women in the workplace.

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