Economists may be celebrating the recent Bureau of Labor and Statistics data that indicates women’s participation in the workforce has reached pre-pandemic levels. After all, the pandemic removed many working-age women from the workforce and, quite frankly, they’re needed to fill positions.
But organizations aimed at promoting equality for women in the workforce say there’s still work to do. “It’s great that they’re coming back, but it doesn’t tell the full story,” said Jennifer McCollum, chief executive officer of Linkage, a leadership development company with a strong focus on women.
February 2023 Bureau of Labor and Statistics data indicates that 77.2% of women ages 25-54 are working or actively seeking work, up from 76.9% in February 2020, just before 13.6 million women lost their jobs, compared to 11.9 million men who faced unemployment.
In large part, women bore the brunt of Covid job losses because they were concentrated in industries, such as health care and hospitality, that were hit the hardest. Many also left to care for children or aging parents.
Now, women seem to be on a better road to recovery from the pandemic than men, at least in terms of workforce participation. Men ages 25-54 were participating at an 88.9% rate in February 2023, still under February 2020’s 89.2%, while the rate for women in the same age group was up slightly compared to February 2020.
Possible reasons for the shift include the economy and number of job opportunities, availability of Covid vaccines, schools and childcare facilities fully reopening and more remote options for women who seek them.
However, Terry Barclay, chief executive officer for Inforum Michigan, dedicated to increasing opportunities and removing barriers for women in the workplace, said these numbers shouldn’t mask the challenges companies still face related to women in the workplace.
“Blunt force numbers are not always helpful,” said Barclay. “The great breakup is not over.”
The great breakup
The “great breakup,” coined by McKinsey & Co, and LeanIn.org in the wake of the organizations’ Women in the Workplace 2022 study, is the recent exodus of women leaders from their jobs. The report showed that for every woman promoted to director level in 2021, two women directors left their positions.
The percentage of women leaders leaving their positions in 2021 — 10.5% — is the highest rate of voluntary departures since McKinsey started collected data in 2017. The data also represents the largest gap between men and women leaders, with only 9% of men leaving jobs.
In other words, said McCollum: “They’re coming back, but are they going to stay with you?”
McCollum pointed out that, while many women were forced to leave positions during the pandemic, some left by choice. A lot of women took time during the pandemic to re-evaluate what they wanted out of their careers, she said, and that’s the prevailing environment for women in the workplace today. “Women have gotten clarity about what’s important,” she said. “They’re making very different choices.”
Monica Eaton, founder of Chargebacks911, aimed at preventing post-transactional fraud, and LIFT, a mentoring program for women in finance, technology and payments, said the pandemic helped build up women’s confidence in their careers and evaluate what they wanted.
“You’re not doing something just for survival,” she said, noting that the corporate world’s mindset hasn’t adjusted to these new ideas.
Along with these changes in mindset, there’s a lot of burnout among women workers, said Barclay. Early in the pandemic, we were all in a “rush to cope,” she said, and adrenaline got us through. “Three years in, it’s become a marathon.”
Indeed, the Women in the Workplace study found that, even at senior manager levels and higher, women were much more likely than men to be doing all the housework and caregiving at home.
Fifty-eight percent of women in entry-level positions were carrying these home responsibilities in 2021, versus 30% of men. At senior manager level and above, the percentage of men doing this work lowers to 13%, while the percentage of women stays up at 52%.
Meanwhile, in the workplace, these same women are often under-recognized. The study found that women leaders were twice as likely as their male counterparts to be mistaken for someone more junior. Also, 37% of women leaders said they’ve had a coworker get credit for their idea, compared to 27% of men leaders.
What’s more, the study found that women leaders were twice as likely as men leaders to spend substantial time on diversity, equity and inclusion, yet 40% of those women said those efforts weren’t recognized in their performance reviews.
It’s no wonder, then, that 43% of female leaders surveyed in the Women in the Workplace study reported being burned out, compared to 31% of male leaders.
What’s causing the breakup?
Barclay enumerated three factors from the McKinsey-LeanIn.org study that contribute to women leaders leaving their positions to seek better opportunities, with the first being those dual work-home responsibilities and lack of recognition.
Second, it’s harder for women to get a promotion.
“There’s a hollowing out of the pipeline to leadership roles,” Barclay said, referring to the Women in the Workplace’s “broken rung” term. For every 100 men who are promoted from entry level to manager in 2021, only 87 women were promoted — an inequality seen for eight consecutive years — the report said.
“The first step you take on the ladder is broken,” said Barclay. Consequently, there just aren’t enough women to promote to senior levels, as men significantly outnumber women on the leadership ladder.
The current leadership environment lends credence to these findings. The Society of Human Resource Management’s 2021 Women in Leadership report cited that, while women make up half of the U.S. labor force, only 8% of Fortune 500 companies and 30% of S&P 500 companies have women CEOs.
There’s also less support for sending women up the ladder, McCollum noted. The SHRM survey found that, while women want to be promoted (55% of female managers and 53% of individual contributors said they aspire to higher roles), their managers don’t act in ways that support their leadership growth. Only 61% of women said their managers support their growth, versus 71% of men.
The third factor Barclay mentioned is a lack of clarity about how to address remote versus office work. Women seek flexibility, since they are, in many cases, juggling home and career responsibilities. In the Women in the Workplace survey, 49% of women leaders said flexibility — being able to work remotely and/or set work hours — is one of the top three things they consider when deciding whether to join or stay with a company, compared to 34% of men leaders.
In fact, the study found that only 10% of women would prefer to work mostly onsite, versus 18% of men. Working mostly remotely was the option most women — 61% — preferred, with hybrid options at 25%. Conversely, 50% of men said they preferred remote work, and 27% said they wanted hybrid onsite and remote.
This flexibility is even more important to younger generations — the pipeline for future female leaders. The survey found that two-thirds of women under 30 would be more interested in advancing to leadership roles if they saw senior leaders with the work-life balance they want.
But it’s not just lack of flexibility that’s causing women leaders to seek other opportunities. “We want organizations that are committed to our well-being,” McCollum said.
In the Women in the Workplace survey, 48% of women leaders cited leaving their positions to find more opportunities to advance their careers, 22% said their manager wasn’t supportive enough, 20% sought more flexibility, 18% sought a higher commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and 17% said their workload was unmanageable.
Unequal pay, more responsibility
Another longtime barrier to equality for women in the workplace is the gap between men’s and women’s paychecks. The Center for American Progress’s 2023 report on the state of women in the labor market indicated that women’s pay tends to plateau as they age, where men’s pay increases.
The report showed that, in January 2023, men earned 16% more than women in the 25 to 54 age group. In the 55 to 64 age group, the gap was 22%, but the gap widened to 27% between men and women 65 and older — a phenomenon that puts women at a significant disadvantage in retirement years.
The report also highlighted caregiving as a key barrier to employment for women. While 993,000 more women with minor children were working in December 2022 versus December 2021, women were still more likely than men to reduce their work hours or leave their jobs because of caregiver duties. For example, 20% of women in the 25 to 64 age group reported a caregiver impact on their work, versus only 3.1% of men.
Why women matter
Barclay pointed to the labor shortage as a key reason companies should create cultures and strategies that attract women. There just aren’t enough people to fill current open positions, she said.
“At some companies, it’s reached profit-limiting levels,” Barclay said. “Good employees are burned out, and they’re opting out.”
Women employees and leaders can help solve the employment gap, she said, pointing out that over 60% of college graduates are women.
What’s more, said Barclay, policies that are women-friendly are often simply employee friendly. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act was designed to help women, but more than half of employees who took advantage of it in the first year were men, she said.
Going forward, employees — especially younger ones — will expect the flexibility that women are asking for today, she said, including remote work opportunities and flexible schedules.
McCollum said diversity is another benefit companies gain from paving the way for women employees and leaders. The goal of diversity can be both altruistic and purely business-focused, she said, as investors and customers are more aware than ever of companies’ diversity or lack thereof. “Companies are starting to feel the pressure. People are watching now.”
She gave the example of Advanced Auto Parts, which operates in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Advanced Auto President Tom Greco sought to create a company culture more reflective of its customer base, she said, and this top-level commitment went a long way toward meeting that goal.
Indeed, Greco had this to say in a 2021 blog, regarding the company’s $200,000 investment in outreach to diverse populations for automotive technology training: “We know a diverse and inclusive workplace that reflects the marketplace we serve makes us a better company and has a direct impact on our financial performance.”
Greco also noted the benefit of a good employment reputation from diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “Creating an environment where every team member feels valued, supported and equal also makes Advance a desirable place to work, as evidenced by team member feedback in our annual organizational health survey.”
Opening the door to women
Among diversity, equity and inclusion practices recommended in the Women in the Workplace report are what the authors term “leading” and “emerging” practices. In other words, it’s not enough to simply track gender and race representation, provide unconscious bias training and offer generous family leave policies. Companies should also consider publicly sharing diversity metrics, and setting goals for gender and race groups represented in management.
Barclay said training direct managers to better motivate and create an inclusive environment for employees is one initiative that will help attract and retain women employees. Remote work is important, too, she said, as flexibility and work-life balance are top considerations for women, especially in the younger generation.
McCollum described four “levers” her organization measures in evaluating opportunities for women through a survey of more than 1,500 global women leaders. They include leadership development, creating a culture where women feel they belong, commitment to advancing women at the executive level, and fair and transparent hiring and talent management.
SHRM suggested in its 2021 Women in Leadership report that companies consider implementing “returnship” programs to attract women who left the workforce during the pandemic. These types of internships, offered by companies like Amazon and Goldman Sachs, provide on-the-job technical training and could lead to full-time job offers.
Barclay said she expects to see corporate culture change to better accommodate women’s demands in the coming years.
“Top talent expects that corporate culture will continue to evolve,” she said. “Companies that get this right are the ones that will succeed.”
Organizations who continue with business as usual, without altering their culture and policies, won’t be able to compete with those that do, she said. “You may not feel it today, but you will feel it tomorrow.”
Companies need to be ambidextrous, said Barclay. “They need to have one foot in today’s challenges and the other in the future. It’s like tuning the car while you’re driving. It’s very difficult to course correct overnight.”
McCollum echoed Barclay’s sentiments: “We’re at a make-or-break moment when it comes to women in leadership.”