Employers are at a crossroads. One path goes forward. The other moves backward.
After decades of women increasingly becoming a vital part of the labor force and a gradual narrowing of the gender wage gap, the impact Covid-19 is disproportionately having on women threatens to send our workforce reeling back in time to pre-1980s numbers.
In order to have the employees we need to run businesses when the economy stabilizes, and honor positive societal progress, employers must work to understand the drivers of the so-called "she-cession" we're experiencing -- and take steps to keep women working and continue narrowing the gender gap.
Women leaving the labor force is bad for business and economic stability
As a result of the pandemic, women are more likely than men to lose their jobs or purposely scale back hours, take less demanding roles, or step out of the workforce entirely to care for family. A significant reason for this is women generally carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to providing child care when daycare centers and schools are closed and learning is based in the home. This shift from paid labor to unpaid labor will have a decades-long impact on both women's income potential and employers' ability to have a viable workforce.
Suppose employers do not take direct action to avoid this gender-regressive trend. In that case, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than in a scenario where women's unemployment matched that of men in each sector, according to a study by McKinsey Global Institute.
How employers can keep women working
The unusual times we currently face are temporary and call for creative solutions. Employers must understand the demands working parents -- especially women -- are juggling, and make short-term accommodations to support them adequately so they can remain in the workforce. Because budgets are tighter than ever for many businesses, accepting that some employees may not be as productive right now presents a real challenge. Keep in mind that the costs of short-term accommodations will likely be offset by savings from increased employee retention, improved employment brand, and faster, smoother recruiting. Beyond that, consider it a long-term investment in your people and your business.
Here are four steps employers can take to support women in these turbulent times:
1. Consider cases on an individual level
Have open and honest conversations with your employees, and craft a compassionate action plan that provides support in areas the employee values most. When employees feel supported, they are more likely to work harder, and your generosity will be repaid with greater loyalty and dedication. If you've built a culture of collaboration among your employees, that effort will really pay off now when your employees need to support each other to reach goals together.
2. Be flexible and provide creative working options
Beyond work-from-home options, flexible work hours, and access to virtual business tools, what more can you do to enable employees to work most effectively in the new normal?
- Allow people to go part-time and adjust jobs as needed.
- Provide job-sharing opportunities.
- Offer to advance PTO with an agreement of how they will compensate the company for this in the future.
- Pay full-time salaries for part-time work for a set number of months.
Keep in mind, hiring, on-boarding, and training new employees is likely far more costly to your bottom line than these temporary accommodations.
3. Re-evaluate goals, expectations and deliverables
As you shift roles, hours, and efficiencies, make parallel adjustments to your overall business goals, individual expectations, and performance evaluations. Taking advantage of an agreed-upon flexible work option should not count against an employee in a performance review or preclude them from future promotions. Remember that women in leadership roles are especially vulnerable in this current environment, so don't lose ground by losing them.
4. Providing flexibility for men can keep women working
If your goal is to retain a balanced, diverse workforce by keeping women employed, offer flexible working options to fathers, too. Women being able to stay engaged with work often requires men taking on more of the child care and home-schooling duties.
If ever compassion was a smart business strategy, it's now. By adjusting your human capital strategy to keep your people employed, you help employees retain the skills, legitimacy and experience your business will rely on in the future.
As business leaders, we need to seize this opportunity to shape our future workforce and affect generations to come.