Multi-ethnic group of women

Reverse the Tide: Return Women to the Workforce

Heather Myers, Ph.D. and Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D.

Chief Psychology Officer & Head of Learning and Development | Fueled by human insight in Work

The pandemic has taken a toll on working women. Here are five ways we can bring about change.

Among the many impacts of the pandemic on the world of work, several have produced eye-popping statistics that will have consequences well into the future. Prominent among these: the exit of women from the paid workforce.

Research late last summer provided a preview of what was to come. At that time, 40% of working mothers reported being “exhausted” during the preceding months, and 1 in 3 indicated they were considering leaving the paid workforce or downsizing their careers. As the pandemic rounded the one-year mark this winter, the results were seen in employment figures. We’ve lost 1.5M women from US payrolls, which represents a return to mid-1980s levels. It’s as if over three decades of gains were erased in less than a year.

The causes are varied, from layoffs to lengthy school closures. As time goes on, an important question arises: how can employers help restore balance? What initiatives can prove particularly helpful for women?


No “One Size Fits All” Approach

As working moms, we’ve both spent our careers confronting the practical issues that surround family life amid career development. The only consensus might be that there’s no one right way to structure one’s working years, and the decisions made along the way are likely to be both personal and imperfect. That came into stark relief during this pandemic year.

Heather Myers, Ph.D. headshotHeather: The pandemic and my response to it highlighted for me the conflict that I still feel between parenting and work. As a family, we struggled with helping our college-age daughter determine whether or not to stay on campus or return home, and our high school-age son needed help adjusting to a life of Zoom classes and very limited peer interactions. We all had to learn how to work from home together and juggle our different schedules. I realized how much work I still do for the common household benefit, like buying furniture to provide spaces for work and study, scheduling appointments of all kinds, making tuition payments, researching service providers, and checking in with our extended family. All of these things make it just a little harder to focus on work.

Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D. headshotRachel: When the pandemic hit, everything shifted rapidly for my family, as it did for all of us. The decisions we made over the next several months included having our college-age daughter take a gap year, which meant helping her find a year-long job she would enjoy. We also moved our youngest child to a private school – something we never would’ve seen ourselves doing under normal circumstances.

One way I would characterize my pandemic experience is that it’s been a chronic type of “brain drain” for me. Whether I had to take calls from admissions directors of K-8 schools or look into ideas for safe outdoor activities to promote my children’s mental health, there’s been a certain level of always-there distraction to contend with most weeks.


With the realities for women in the workforce looking dire over this past year, we need to look further into why the toll fell disproportionately on women. In the meantime, leadership should also be actively taking steps to ensure that societal factors never again wreak such havoc on a single demographic like this. Here are five suggestions for where to start.

  1. Rethink the idea of “work-life balance.” Work and life don’t take turns.

    Although this term is well-meaning, the message it sends may be part of the problem when it comes to creating workplaces for everyone. The work week can’t be seen as a zero-sum game in which “work” and “life” alternate. It’s better to recognize that work and life inherently intersect. And they collide not just in our physical location, but in what occupies our mental space.

    Consider how to invest in resources that can ease some of the household burdens employees face. On-site or facilitated child care is a big one for those with young children, as would be support for school transportation. Support the addition of “appointment-making and other to-do’s” in short chunks on calendars – a step that can have a beneficial side effect of encouraging employees to maintain preventive healthcare for themselves and family members.

  2. Personal days can also be a “Personal 30.”

    It may be time to reconsider the 20th century model in which salaried workers are allotted weeks of Paid Time Off, commonly understood to be for leisure time, along with a handful of “Sick Days” that people often pride themselves on not using. Take a more flexible approach to both. Utilizing a flexible half-hour “Personal 30,” for example, can address needs both practical and psychological, whether for a chat with a stressed spouse or to call the landlord.

    We’d like to encourage that we do more for hourly workers. Staffing should bake in the needed flexibility for all workers to cash in a mid-shift Personal 30 on occasion. For a transformation like this to succeed, it must be accompanied by an inclusive ideology so that workers with heavier household demands are as welcome as others. Incorporate language around these realities into the criteria used for employee evaluations. For example, allow workers to cite recent acute household needs as a contributing factor to explain any recent lags in performance if they wish.

    Companies that lead on this will emerge as sought-after employers. Among the rewards: loyal and longer-tenured employees.

  3. Women – and moms – in leadership roles can help clarify organizational priorities.

    We affirm the continuing importance of maintaining a diverse workforce, and prioritizing diversity across seniority levels and sectors. One reason? Because the “I get it – trust me” vibe is helpful in shaping how we build policy, what we prioritize, and how we evaluate our team members. Although women joined the workforce in improving numbers over the last several decades, their presence in leadership ranks still lags behind. Cultivate leadership in female students and early-career staffers, playing the long game toward organizational leadership roles for women. Women should also be well-represented in supervisory roles overseeing hourly workers.

    Moreover, when a culture of employee engagement is characteristic of a workplace, and development tools extend to everyone, that helps build in recognition of the day-to-day lived experience of each staff member – no matter how old or young, whether from a bustling multi-generational household or living alone.

  4. Recognize that outside-of-work needs don’t only impact parents.

    Employers would do well to recognize that all their team members can be subjected to the “brain drain” at times, not just those with children at home. Dating partners, parents, siblings, close friends, and even pets all have needs that can impact an employee. As an employer, encourage shared family-care duties, with everyone not only doing their part, but supported and valued while doing so.

    When our language and policies lead, attitudes follow. That begins with communicating the importance for everyone of tending to their circle of family and friends, and enabling the practical end of this in the workplace. It extends also to formal policies. For example, the discussion of “parental leave,” not just “maternity leave,” is a commendable shift of the 21st century. And again, it’s time we support workers in all industries and across seniority levels. Take a holistic view of the daily lives of your staff, from the 19-year-old cashier who babysits her niece to the mid-career analyst helping her mother recover from surgery.

  5. Some pandemic-era changes should stick around.

    The uptake of hybrid office-based and remote-work schedules, along with the normalization of customized hours from onboarding to late-career, is a welcome innovation. Another keeper: our new habit of staying home when sick, even with mild symptoms. That benefits us all, and should extend to caring for a loved one. Employers should lead the effort and implement or expand paid sick leave, a policy that will help address turnover. Policymakers should also consider public funding of paid sick leave, given its value as a public health measure. Employers should ensure that employees who exercise this benefit are not undermined – not in evaluations, nor access to schedules, nor promotion and development opportunities.


Plenty of adversity, but plenty of room for growth

We tend to think of the modern woman as a person who takes on a lot – the “Superwoman” who climbs the corporate ladder while juggling numerous other needs at the same time. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a generational challenge that has left virtually no one unscathed, and its impact on working women has been startling. This has revealed a truth worth knowing: the women weren’t alright. Even the most powerful superhero has their kryptonite, after all.

Let this be a call to action for us all to create inclusive organizations that recognize that human beings compose our workforces. Those human beings sometimes have to care for their 6-year-old who tumbled off the swingset, attend a track meet to root on a grandson, or give an elderly aunt a ride to the dentist.

Instead of hoping folks will somehow ceaselessly compartmentalize their lives, let’s embrace the messiness of busy modern existence and find ways to make the workplace work – for everyone.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn.


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