HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Countering the First Female Recession: Lessons for HR

Today is International Women’s Day 2021, and we find ourselves in a sorry state of affairs. Since the pandemic began, the overwhelming majority of those leaving the workforce have been women. This is largely due to childcare duties’ falling automatically on the shoulders of women. Years of hard work by so many to bring equity to women in the workplace is backsliding rapidly, and it will take a concerted and very serious effort on employers’ part to reverse this trend.

Source: MJgraphics / shutterstock

I recently had a conversation with Sanja Licina, PhD, HR expert, and President of QuestionPro Workforce, on this topic, and here is what she had to say.

I’ve heard the recent situation being called the “Female Recession.” Can you help characterize what that is precisely?

According to the National Women’s Law Center analysis, more than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, which makes it the lowest labor participation rate since 1988. As a point of comparison, during the same time period, nearly 1.8 million men left the labor force. Women hit the low point in December, when 86.3% of job losses were accounted for by women. In January, we saw that women gained 87,000 jobs compared with the loss of 38,000 by men, but this far from helps improve the severe and disproportionate impact women have experienced in terms of labor market participation over the last year.

With the vaccine already being distributed around the world, won’t those women who left their jobs be able to bounce right back into their old, or similar, roles?

Oh how I wish it were that easy, but there are several factors that unfortunately make this impossible. One is that women made up a large part of the hospitality and restaurant industries—two of the sectors that are very likely to see a slow return. In many positions women left, employers either had decided to eliminate those positions or, if the positions were essential, more than likely filled them with someone else rather than keeping the vacancies open indefinitely, even if those who left them were remarkable employees.

It seems to me that traditional efforts to encourage equity among genders in the workplace might fall short. After all, they were built around the assumption that people were available for work. Now, thanks to shortfalls in child care, many of the women who left are not available for work. How can employers modify their equity efforts to match these new challenges?

As a society, we are really going to need to challenge our belief and really look for creative solutions to create more equity in this reality. As we look at the executive leadership in many organizations, those roles are still filled by men; only 41 (roughly 8%) of all the Fortune 500 companies are led by women, and only 3 of them are women of color.

It will be even more of a challenge for women coming out of COVID, especially if there’s a lag between return to work and return to school. In many, if not most, families, the primary responsibility for education has been the mom’s, even if she’s working a full-time job. If employers open doors before schools do, it will be a big disadvantage for working mothers.

That said, the news is highlighting organizations that are offering “work from anywhere.” This is a double-edged sword. It’s hard enough for women to break through the glass ceiling when they are in the office each day, participating in meetings and having lunches with team members. Take that away, and it can get harder to develop those personal relationships that often lead to advancement.

On the flip side, these work-from-anywhere approaches may make it easier for working women who are parents to balance the need to get kids to school and after-school activities. I think time will tell.

One thing is for sure: Return to work will not be “easy” for any organization. I hope COVID-19 shook us in a significant way and enabled us to try many new technologies and business practices that have created new “norms” for people. I’ve seen a real appreciation among employers measuring the impact of an effort, not the where and when. That’s refreshing. Let’s hope these new norms offer the same—or an even better—opportunity for women to thrive in the workplace.

For those women who can work from home, many would still be able to work a reduced schedule. Concerns surrounding productivity, however, often prevent these employees from keeping their jobs. How can organizations support women who have some time to work but not as much as before?

As I just mentioned, I think COVID changed a lot of employers’ minds about whether remote or flexible working arrangements actually work. Going forward, I hope organizations will continue to measure employees on quality of work and output rather than their physical location. I do believe that organizations that are able to do this successfully will become a magnet for top talent. 

Think about all those people, particularly women, who never had the chance to make a difference because they couldn’t fit the mold that was expected of them. But given a chance to contribute again and not have      to sacrifice their family and other non-work-related obligations, we can expect extremely high levels of employee engagement, productivity, and loyalty.

What are some of the hidden, future problems the Female Recession will cause?

This question gave me a sharp pain in my stomach. I’m reminded of cartoons from my childhood in which you plug a leaky hole in one place with your finger and all of a sudden, another erupts. And to make sure we don’t do that, we need to think about the future problems, exactly as you asked. A few come to mind.

We need to be careful that more flexible and part-time assignments aren’t automatically perceived as offering less value to the organization. Individuals holding these should be perceived as equal contributors to the team. People should not have to feel marginalized for choosing a flexible work schedule.

In 2020, women made only $0.81 for every dollar men made. We must take care to ensure that more flexible arrangements don’t perpetuate or widen that gap. We also must ensure that benefits are equal.

Women, especially mothers, risk being left behind if they work from home and younger, single employees dominate the workplace. In these scenarios, “hand-off” assignments, ad hoc meetings, and social experiences like lunches and happy hours—all of which contribute to advancement—may become few and far between.

There is a lot to be done here, and I would be a huge advocate of continued dialogue, especially with those being impacted the most, to see how the initiatives are working, solicit their ideas on what else can be done, and iterate and innovate with passion and conviction as we never have before. 

What is your advice to HR on how to communicate these new problems in such a way that supports a culture of equity in their organizations?

I think a two-way dialogue with everyone will be essential because those who are impacted the most will need to know we are listening to them, and to succeed, we need to be aware of their evolving needs and check in on how they’re doing. And for those who have child care at home or don’t have children, we should not assume they are not fighting any of their own battles. They need to understand the disproportionate impact on their colleagues and why certain measures are being taken, but we shouldn’t turn off our listening ears to them completely by any means. If we do so, all the efforts we are putting in the organization have a greater likelihood of backfiring.

Any last thoughts? Any rays of hope?

We can’t lose hope because if we do, we will lose the will to fight. This is a horribly difficult situation we find ourselves in. But we have never been more connected and more willing to make a change. We have seen some great announcements in the way work is going to play out from companies such as Spotify. Now is the time to start telling great stories of what organizations are doing, and plan to do, to combat this Female Recession. Even when schools reopen and child care is less of a burden, we can’t go back to the way things were before the recession. I really hope the attention this issue is getting results in change, but it won’t change without action. So we need to channel the energy and momentum and get really, really creative in how we solve this problem. I wholeheartedly believe we can get there!