The global pandemic continues to have a profound impact on the role of women in the workforce and there doesn’t seem to be any letup in sight, said Rebecca Henderson, CEO, global business, and executive board member of Randstad.
In her opening address at the Women in HR Tech Summit on the first day of the HR Technology Conference, she said the toll of the pandemic on women—millions of whom have dropped out of the workforce to manage added childcare responsibilities and for other reasons—is threatening to reverse decades of progress. Now, many women have real concerns about returning to the workforce and may have to restart their careers to catch up to their male colleagues.
“Things were moving in the right direction but clearly, as the pandemic hit, women chose to take a back seat,” she said. “For the first time in years, female participation [in the labor force] has gone backwards.”
She added, “Women taking a pause means a much longer time to re-entry.”
Henderson said this so-called “She-cession” is being made worse by conditions already facing women in the workplace. For instance, she said, women are laid off at a rate of 1.5 times that of men, often because they have lower-seniority roles than their male counterparts. For every 100 men promoted to a first-level management role, she added, 86 women were promoted to the same roles—a gap that could continue to widen given the pandemic.
“Getting back to where we were is quite difficult,” she said.
To help address the problem, Henderson said, lawmakers need to extend the Child Care Tax Credit, which provides monthly payments to families with children, among other stipulations, and expand Paid Family Leave Act to provide new parents with full pay for 12 weeks.
There are also many steps employers can take, she said. Many women returning to the workforce or seeking new opportunities will be looking for roles that offer flex time and hybrid work opportunities—and they should be able to access them without backtracking their career. “We will see more women resigning and leaving for jobs that recognize their expertise but they are going to go for lower-title jobs for work/life balance reasons and not their careers,” she noted.
Job training, upskilling and mentorship have never been more important, especially for women and women of color, Henderson added, particularly for women who are starting back to new roles that require different skill sets. “Mentorship and coaching are necessary to get back to the workforce,” she said.
What else can forward-thinking employers do? “There are not a lot of good answers out there. We have to innovate and, unless we are agile with our workforce, there is little chance of moving the needle,” she said.
She urged HR leaders to embed empathy in their strategies for retaining and recruiting women today. If your family is struggling, your employees are as well, she said.
Randstad hired a mental health expert on retainer to speak with employees about their stress and its impact on their lives and careers. It also offered more mental health days and lowered its benefits threshold to allow part-time workers access to benefits. Randstad employees embraced this new offering, which cost the organization far less that anticipated, she said.
Still, anxieties continue to fester, and smart employers looking to recruit top female talent will tailor strategies to reduce those fears.
“Women are more anxious than men about returning to the office—studies show they want to return to fewer days a week. In fact, there are campaigns that say, ‘Your old job wants you in the office, work for us. We’re hybrid,’ ” she said.
While efforts to reverse the damage of the pandemic on women’s careers will be a long-term and ongoing issue, it’s one that employers have to pay attention to today.
“If we don’t take this up, we will go backwards in society.”
Related: Register for HRE’s newsletters here.