Vaccinations are available, and states have been reopening, but the number of women in the workforce has fallen to historic lows because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As employees begin returning to the office, employers should be thinking about how to reshape their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts to attract and retain women workers.
How We Got Here
When states began issuing “stay at home” orders early last year, women almost immediately started leaving the workforce in alarming numbers. Between April and March 2020, approximately 3.5 million mothers with school-age children left active work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They either shifted into paid or unpaid leave, lost their jobs, or exited the labor market altogether. By October 2020, more than 2 million women overall had left the labor force.
As 2021 grinds on, millions of women have yet to return to full-time work. In January 2021, mothers’ active work status was 6.4 percentage points lower than in January 2020, according to the Census Bureau.
While a complex mix of factors has contributed to the disproportionate number of women who have departed from the workforce, some studies attribute the disparity to the pressure and stress of working from home while their children are also attending school there. Even after schools began reopening for in-person learning in 2021, however, women haven’t quickly returned to work.
If companies fail to create an inclusive climate that normalizes the challenges working mothers face, they may see an increase in their exposure to litigation. In a central Pennsylvania case, a processing manager at a small retail company claimed her supervisor denied her request to adjust the work schedule because her 9-year-old would be home during the day. So, she sued her former employer, alleging she had been forced to resign. She said the supervisor was immediately skeptical of her request and accused her of wanting to use the time to access social media. Delaney, MaryJo v. Advantage Sales, Ltd., et al., No. 4:20-cv-01644-MWB (M.D.Pa., filed Sept. 11, 2020).
In another case, the mother of two toddlers alleged she suffered gender discrimination because of a supervisor’s disparaging remarks about her children’s noisemaking during conference calls. Wallace, Drisana v. Hub International Insurance Services Inc. et al., No. 37-2020-00019040, Superior Court of California, County of San Diego County, filed June 5, 2020.
What Employers Can Do
If your company is trying to improve gender diversity and inclusion in its ranks, you should direct your efforts toward both recruiting and retention. “Inclusion” can refer to a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging. It can be assessed as the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted, and encouraged to fully participate in the organization.
Creating a more inclusive climate may require fundamental changes to your organization’s culture and character. In support of working parents, you could:
- Implement flexible scheduling whenever possible (i.e., it isn’t an undue burden on business needs); and
- Establish resource or support groups to provide spaces for workers to share, listen, and learn from one another.