5 Steps to Prevent Women Leaving the Workforce

Women are leaving the workforce, and recent data suggests that the progress made toward gender workplace equality could be nearly erased if the trend continues. These exits are both voluntary and involuntary. Many women who lost their job in 2020 are not seeking re-entry. As these women focus on today’s Covid-related concerns and step out, what will happen to your leadership pipeline and inclusion of women executives?

Here’s a closer look at this trend and advice for management. These five proactive steps in 2021 will help you continue to grow the ranks of women executives.

Women Leaving the Workforce – Stepping Back or Getting Kicked Out

In 2020, American women lost more than five million jobs. At the beginning of 2020, women made up 50.04% of the workforce – a slight majority as of January – but by December, women accounted for just 49.7% of total jobs. As the pandemic continues to eliminate jobs, women have been harder hit. In December 2020, women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000, for a net US job loss of 140,000.

According to Matthias Doepke, an economics professor at Northwestern University who studies the gender effects of recessions, people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession still have lower earnings than their counterparts because when they eventually found work, it was often for lower wages. It took many of them time to find a replacement job, thereby giving them less valuable experience than those who remained in the workforce. Doepke believes this current recession could widen the gender pay gap by five percentage points.

Hourly, Low-Paid vs Higher-Paid Women

Because women make up a larger percentage of hourly workers in retail and restaurant jobs – those most at risk during this pandemic – today’s gender-imbalanced job loss is not a surprise. Analysis from Snagajob, a staffing platform for hourly jobs, found that because these jobs pay so little, about 75% of hourly workers in the US were better off with unemployment benefits rather than finding a new position when the federal supplement was $300 a week. And when childcare isn’t available, many women see no viable option other than collecting unemployment benefits. Certainly, the lower their pay, the more likely women leave.

But what about women executives and other higher-paid women in middle management? Covid accelerated the trend toward remote work, thereby increasing flexibility and eliminating many office workers’ long commutes. While some of the workday’s demands have eased through remote work, working from home hasn’t been a panacea. Many homes don’t have the space for both a home office and home schooling. And one person can’t be an executive, a teacher, and a caregiver simultaneously all throughout the day.

Brian Elliott, vice president at Slack, said that his company’s research shows that middle managers are most affected by Covid-induced workplace stress and social isolation. According to Slack’s survey of 9,000 knowledge workers around the globe, middle managers – whose typical age makes them more likely to be parents – were 91% more likely to report difficulty working remotely when compared to those less likely to be parents. Only 60% of middle managers felt they could manage their workload.

With fewer childcare options and less in-school supervision due to Covid, many women in middle management are leaving the workforce voluntarily. Or they chose not to look for a new job if they get laid off.

According to the World Economic Forum research:

  • 54% of women executives report feeling consistently exhausted compared to 41% of men.
  • Senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting or leaving the workforce because of Covid-19.
  • 36% of senior women vs. 27% of senior men feel pressured to work more.
  • Nearly 75% of senior women cite burnout as the main reason they would consider quitting.

Our “Over-Work” Culture Before the Pandemic

The March/April 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) recapped a study conducted before the pandemic. The authors of “What’s Really Holding Women Back” concluded the culprit is “overwork.” The HBR team was engaged by a global consulting firm to help it address high turnover rates among women – although the researchers found little difference in retention rates of men and women.

The consulting firm’s management held strongly that women’s commitment to their children was paramount and therefore their female consultants’ commitment to work could only be secondary. However, the HBR researchers found the data didn’t support this theory. (Women without children had about the same career advancement record as mothers.)

The researchers found ample evidence that a culture of “overwork” hurt all consultants – both men and women. However, women were more often encouraged to go part time or take lesser roles to accommodate family obligations. These changes derailed their careers. “What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture,” shares the article’s authors, Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic.

According to the World Economic Forum research cited above, women are more likely to feel pressure to work more than men. Perhaps some males feel less pressure to work more because they are better at recognizing and characterizing some workload expectations as unrealistic. While, women on the other hand, succumb more readily to the pressure because historically, women were held to higher standards.

5 Steps You Can Take Now to Stem Women Leaving the Workforce

Should the C-Suite just sit back and watch future women executives drain out of the talent pipeline? Of course not. These five initiatives will help you retain your best and brightest women.

1) Make appropriate workload concessions.

The HBR study above should cause us to evaluate whether executives are pushing too much unnecessary work onto middle management. This evaluation is especially critical now, during the pandemic. According to the World Economic Forum, “Employers need to check whether productivity and performance expectations set before Covid-19 are still realistic and help create work-life boundaries.”

In short, look for unnecessary work and eliminate it. (Think about those TPS reports from the movie Office Space! The afore-mentioned HBR case study mentioned people working all weekend to perfect 100-slide decks that clients rarely consumed.) Somewhere in every organization, you can find middle managers working on tasks that no longer matter in view of newer priorities. Get rid of these.

2) Provide vehicles for middle managers – especially women – to build networks and friendships with work colleagues.

During a December 2020 Gallup podcast on the future of work, Mike Everson, CEO of MBO Partners, shared an insight he learned from Don Clifton, former chairman of Gallup, author, and developer of CliftonStrengths: Most companies study retention by focusing on reasons people leave, but they’re asking the wrong question. We should focus on why people stay, and the single biggest reason people stay is that they don’t want to let their friends down.

The farther women rise on the org chart, the fewer female colleagues they have. Companies that sponsor opportunities for women to build relationships with other women – and other colleagues in general – stand to be rewarded by higher retention.

Slack’s VP Brian Elliott agrees that overtaxed middle managers need to be allowed to use company time to build and grow relationships. “Don’t be afraid to get super tactical” he shares, and create opportunities for middle managers to get together to discuss and compare obstacles and solutions.

3) Evaluate pay equity.

Could your organization still have women in key positions who are paid less than men in the same or similar roles? Now is the time to make any needed adjustments to bring your women leaders’ compensation in line.

4) Reinstate your leadership development programs virtually and enroll women now.

When a woman is selected for a development program, it signals management’s view of her current and long-term value. It sends a message that she is being “developed” to take on bigger responsibility in the future and gain higher rewards.

Most of IMPACT Group’s clients, including those who put their programs on hiatus in 2020, are resuming their programs this year through virtual delivery. Some leaders report as being their new preferred mode. Virtual technology has come a long way. As an example, platforms feature a breakout room feature for smaller discussion, with the ability to return to the larger group – all with a click. All types of scenarios are possible!

5) Pair your emerging female leaders with a leadership coach.

According to data from Gensler Research Institute, less than half of US workers have participated in coaching or mentoring during the pandemic. For a comparatively small investment, you can ensure your female talent feels valued and has the support of a leadership coach.

IMPACT Group’s global coaching staff works with women across three growth areas: how to enhance their personal effectiveness, how to tap into and grow their business acumen, and how to improve their corporate visibility. We get incredible feedback from women. They tell us our coaches had a strong impact in helping them reach their full potential.

IMPACT Group is a global leader in leadership development and talent mobility programs. We work with clients in manufacturing, technology, insurance, finance, non-profit, energy, and business services. Find out more about our leadership development programs for women, teams, executives, and emerging leaders.

Keep learning!

View the Women Leaving the Workforce Infographic now.