- Women's wellbeing slipped as their levels of stress and worry rose
- The workforce has lost over 2 million women since the pandemic began
- Leaders can set the tone for working moms with these seven things
The pandemic changed everything. And while the future of the traditional "8-to-5 workplace schedule" is uncertain, there are both positives and negatives regarding the new approach to getting work done. One of those negatives is that the workforce is currently down 500,000 more women than men compared with before the pandemic began.
Bureau of Labor Statistics' data have consistently shown that the labor force participation rate has shrunk more among U.S. women than men, translating into 2.3 million fewer women and 1.8 million fewer men in the workforce in February than were there a year ago.
At the same time, Gallup found that women's wellbeing slipped further than men's as their levels of stress and worry rose. "This year has been a roller coaster blur of exhaustion, treading water, self-doubt, and loss of identity," one working mom* said. "No matter what I did, I couldn't get ahead. I'm behind on emails, behind on work, behind on dishes, laundry, the list goes on. I still find it hard to comprehend that a whole year has gone by. Sometimes I am sad I didn't appreciate it enough, and sometimes I am thankful it is over."
That feeling explains the rationale behind the departure of so many women from the workforce: They left because they couldn't keep carrying what felt like the weight of the world on their shoulders.
"This year has been a roller coaster blur of exhaustion, treading water, self-doubt, and loss of identity."
These emotional setbacks hit women in the prime of their working lives the hardest: middle- to high-income women under age 50. And Gallup found that, on average over the past year, more working women than men have experienced a great deal of disruption in their lives from the pandemic. "It's been hard. Harder than hard," as one woman put it.
The impact of work on women, and women's work on the economy.
The loss of so many women in the workforce is especially disappointing as it comes on the heels of a breakthrough era for women in leadership. Until the pandemic, the percentage of women in senior business leadership positions set the global record, including a five-percentage-point jump in holding senior vice president roles and a record-breaking number of Fortune 500 companies with a female CEO. Right now, 119 women serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, another 24 in the Senate, and one is vice president.
Even during the pandemic, women leaders were making big strides: a Zenger-Folkman study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that women were rated as better leaders by their colleagues than male leaders, and outscored men on 13 out of 19 leadership competencies. Meanwhile, the world was applauding the way political leaders like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, and Mette Frederiksen, the prime minister of Denmark, led their countries through a crisis unlike any experienced before.
Until the pandemic, the percentage of women in senior business leadership positions set the global record, including a five-percentage-point jump in senior vice president roles and a record-breaking number of Fortune 500 companies with a female CEO.
Gallup finds that women are generally more engaged at work than men, and have higher rates of work satisfaction, too. Even during the pandemic and the plummeting wellbeing and rising burnout it brought, work is something that women want to do - it provides them with meaning and value.
"Being able to focus on work 100% filled a big part of what I needed to be fulfilled as a person," as one woman put it. "I will never forget how excited I was to come back from parental leave and be my best self at work again. It fulfilled an identity of being the employee that I wanted to be, setting goals and feeling like the only barrier to achieving them was myself." Work gives women an important part of their identity and the data suggest it's been a source of solace during the pandemic.
Work enables women (and men) to truly capitalize on their strengths and make a lasting difference, all while their labor has had a huge impact on the economy and human wellbeing. When women started joining the workforce in big numbers, the global GDP started climbing with predictable effects on health, education and even entrepreneurship. Right now, women's labor is worth $7.6 trillion to America's GDP each year. If every woman in the U.S. took the day off at once, it would cost our GDP almost $21 billion (and that's only counting paid labor).
Work enables women (and men) to truly capitalize on their strengths and make a lasting difference, all while their labor has had a huge impact on the economy and human wellbeing.
Women need hybrid schedules that work for them.
But that personal and economic impact requires a little "give" to function well, and women haven't had much give. In general and during the pandemic, working women put in more hours toward childcare and household labor than men do, on average. Trying to maintain normal operations at home and work, along with 24/7 parenting, shreds their focus and depletes their reserves. "There have been a couple of times I've had mini-breakdowns because I feel like I'm failing everywhere," says one working mom. "I can't give my 100% to everything anymore and it's an awful feeling."
Reopening offices, schools and daycare centers will help, but we can't wait for that -- Gallup analysis of the U.S. Census Pulse survey finds that 28% of out-of-work mothers with a child in school say they stopped working to provide childcare for children out of school, whereas the figure was only 12% among out-of-work fathers. Until normalcy in schools returns, these parents need some accommodation to ease back into work.
Though the pandemic changed everything, it also created the opportunity to finally create real change in the workplace with meaningful flexibility and hybrid schedules that work for all.
To retain working women, be flexible.
Just imagine the significant returns we could create as leaders by retaining our working moms through the end of the pandemic. We'll keep more prime candidates for leadership in the management pipeline. We'll preserve valuable institutional knowledge and experience. And, of course, we can expect better financial and productivity results for our organizations and our economy.
In fact, a 2014 Gallup study of 800 business units found that gender-diverse retail business units had 14% higher average comparable revenue than less-diverse business units, and gender-diverse business units in hospitality showed 19% higher average quarterly net profit than less-diverse business units.
So, what can leaders do to ensure they retain working moms, all working parents, especially single parents?
Leaders can set a tone of agility, adaptability and flexibility that enables women to flourish. Many leaders set that tone in an extraordinary way when the pandemic began. This is an extension of that style of leadership, just focused differently -- toward female employees who are able to engage and perform against strong headwinds and under great stress. Those are superpowers, but they can be maximized when leaders:
1. Document and detail the employee experience of working moms and parents: Ask them what they need to be successful and stay in the job.
Add it to your risk mitigation strategy in the same way you do finance, governance or competitive intelligence -- after all, human capital is your most important asset.
2. Hire managers who are naturally caring.
Caring managers help employees achieve performance goals and develop their potential -- while living their best lives -- through strengths, wellbeing and engagement.
3. Assign a manager to be responsible for every employee.
One who cares about associates' performance, development, and wellbeing, whether the company has 1 million, 100, or 10 employees.
4. Help managers make the right changes in expectations and responsibilities.
These changes will work to reduce unproductive worry and stress while creating outlets for greater wellbeing.
5. Discuss DEI as a business necessity with the leadership team and create risk analyses to address concerns.
These concerns could be economic disruptions or brand image issues -- anything that could systemically reduce your odds of growing human capital assets in diverse areas.
6. Talk with your leadership team about leading into the future with hybrid schedules.
Hybrid schedules must be tailored to clients, the market and to employees' needs. That's how we can reduce stress and burnout so that women don't have to worry about being able to take care of things at work and at home.
7. Open optional office space for those who are ready to return and/or need to be in the office to do their best work.
This will support performance and the social connections that are so important for human wellbeing.
Now is the time to discuss how your workforce will work -- some remote, some in the office or both. Many employees need to be in an office to be their best, and others need "give" on when they work their hours.
It's time to use creativity in scheduling. Meeting your customers' needs is a priority, but so is making schedules that work for your employees' performance, potential, wellbeing, and life. Think about how you can support workers so they can accomplish great outcomes.
When you make work better for women, you make things better for everyone -- men, children, your company, our economy and the world.
*The people quoted in this article are all working women between the ages of 25 and 50. All of them have children, and we've redacted their names to preserve their anonymity.
**This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect the latest numbers from the March 5, 2021, BLS Employment Situation Summary.
Make work better for everyone, starting with women:
- Read Working Remotely: Careers, Management and Strategy for details on the changing workplace including benefits of flexible working environments.
- Focus on your employees' wellbeing at work, contact a wellbeing expert for more information.
- For more insights on the evolution of life at work, subscribe to the Gallup at Work newsletter.