Women have returned to the workforce. Now, how to keep them?

Women have returned to the workforce. Now, how to keep them?

Autor: Jen Colletta

This month marks four years since the official start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the massive workforce shifts during this time was the exodus—and subsequent return—of women to the labor force.

Just months into the pandemic, the effect on women’s labor force participation was already noticeable, with some experts dubbing the impact the “She-cession.” Women around the country left their jobs in droves, largely driven by disproportionate expectations for caregiving duties in the wake of pandemic-related closures. Meanwhile, female-dominated industries like hospitality saw deep job cuts. Ultimately, 1.8 million women left the workforce during COVID, according to digital talent marketplace The Mom Project.

However, by January 2023, the Center for American Progress reports, the level of American women’s employment had returned to pre-pandemic levels. The rate of participation for prime-age women (25-54) now stands at 77%, one percentage point above where it was in 2019.

The stat seems to suggest a success story, but experts say it’s not finished. Especially this Women’s History Month—as employers acknowledge occasions like International Women’s Day and Equal Pay Day—HR leaders need to recognize that the expectations of women in the workforce in 2024 are materially different than they were pre-pandemic, as are the challenges they face.

Allison Robinson, founder and chairwoman of The Mom Project, notes that while the rise of flexible working post-pandemic creates “more equal footing for moms,” working mothers are simultaneously navigating a lack of childcare resources, return-to-office mandates and burnout, among other issues. What’s more, when so many women were pushed out of the workforce, it dialed back progress on everything from pay equity to representation in leadership—which HR needs to proactively remedy.

Combined, these obstacles signal to HR leaders that they must align everything from benefits to culture with what women of today want in order to build an inclusive, innovative workforce of the future.

“It is critical,” Robinson says, “that companies not backslide in terms of equity gains for women in the workforce.”

What working women want: A foundation of flexibility

A key factor that has driven women who left during the height of the pandemic back into the workforce has been the rise of flexibility, says Sadie Funk, national director of The Best Place for Working Parents®, a collaborative, national business network. The organization offers a designation of the same name for companies that provide innovative family-friendly benefits and policies.

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