HRE’s Number of the Day: return to workplace pressures

17%: Percentage of women who say they feel pressured to return to their office when it reopens in order to keep their job, an average of 7 percentage points higher than men

Fears over a mass exodus of women from the workforce have already started materializing. And now, new research points to even more pandemic-driven disparities facing women.

In a survey of more than 1,100 U.S. workers by The Conference Board, women reported higher rates of concerns about returning to the workplace than men. For instance, 17% of women said they felt pressured to return in order to retain their jobs, compared to 10% of men. Additionally, 67% are concerned about contracting COVID-19 upon returning to the workplace, while 61% of men reported such fears. Women are also more worried about colleagues not adhering to safety guidelines (39% of women versus 32% of men).

Gender wasn’t the only factor fueling differences in the survey responses, as job level also appeared to have an influence. For instance, 20% of individual contributors and 21% of frontline managers are feeling pressure to return to the workplace to keep their jobs—compared to just 4% of C-suite executives. Individual contributors are also the least likely to feel comfortable returning to in-person work.

Related: 8 trends in employer support for the childcare crisis

Overall, about one-third of respondents reported that they’re not at all comfortable returning, and only 17% are very comfortable. Less than one-third of participants expect to return to the workplace before 2021.

What it means for HR leaders

Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board, says the heightened concern from female workers makes sense, given the added expectations for women in the workforce today.

“Given that the bulk of child- and eldercare responsibilities still, unfortunately, fall disproportionately to women, it is understandable that women may be more concerned about workplace safety,” she says. “Exposing their families to COVID-19 or contracting the disease themselves would exacerbate the already thin child- and eldercare support.”

Those fears are exacerbated by concerns over fellow workers not abiding by safety guidelines, she notes.

To that end, employers, guided by HR, need to not only prioritize worker safety but also ensure the entire workforce understands the safety strategies in place—especially given the rising risk for women to exit the workforce.

See also: Pandemic taking greater toll on women in the workforce

“Other than taking action to make the workplace safe, HR leaders should continually communicate not only the actions taken but the accountability for all employees,” she says. “This will go a long way toward allaying fears.”

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