Real Leaders

Too Many Working Women Aren’t Working Anymore. Here’s How to Welcome Them Back

To bring back women who have left the workforce, it’s up to employers to create an environment where women can prosper and meet their family obligations with no resistance.

A shocking number of women have exited the workforce since 2020 — as many as 3.5 million, all told — but we can reverse this disturbing trend if those of us in leadership positions operate with purpose, compassion, and creativity. Hiring more dynamic women on our teams and into deserved leadership roles means better business, after all.

But before we can encourage women to come back to work, we need to understand why they left. For far too many, the choice wasn’t made by them. Instead, the daunting and unrealistic expectations thrust upon them by a society coping with a global pandemic decided for them. Women historically have tended to carry the load at home, as noted in a piece from the Brookings Institution, and that load has only gotten heavier during the pandemic. 

According to a 2021 survey from MetLife, almost half of women say their career paths have been disrupted due to COVID. About one-fifth told MetLife they couldn’t continue working for reasons outside their control, yet two-thirds vowed that they were planning to come back.

Those promised returns haven’t happened. In September 2021 alone, more than a quarter-million additional women left the workforce, per CNBC reporting. By contrast, the World Economic Forum suggests that men are globally on a trajectory to return to 2019 work levels any day now.

Meeting the Needs of Women at Work

Look through today’s headlines, and you’ll find plenty of worrisome pieces discussing the current labor shortage fallout. While employers across the country have gone on record saying that they can’t find qualified candidates, many talented women are at home contemplating whether rejoining the workforce is even worth it. 

So what can be done to reengage this latent talent pool? It’s up to employers to create an environment where women can prosper and meet their family obligations with no resistance. Empowering and supporting women to shine as brightly as possible might mean thinking outside conventional working constructs.

It’s a lot to unpack, but the process to clear a path for women to start submitting résumés en masse is worth it:

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1. Teach leaders how to manage with empathy

Admittedly, I was a less than sympathetic leader to the mothers on my team when I took my first management position. Why? I hadn’t become a parent yet. I had no comprehension of what it was like to have real priorities outside of work. It’s not that I didn’t care; I just couldn’t relate to what it was like to have so little downtime. After all, being a parent is a 24/7 endeavor that always takes precedence.

Businesses must train their leaders to acknowledge and respect the personal lives of working women. I have a great example of how this can play out, too. When I was the mother of a 2-year-old and pregnant with my second child, my male boss offered me the role of company president. He understood what far too many leaders don’t: Just because I was juggling family and work didn’t mean I couldn’t be a bigger asset to the organization or even take up the helm. Once in this role, I made it a deliberate practice to tell my team when I was leaving early or taking a personal day to be present with my children. Sharing this explicitly with my team set the tone that it was acceptable for them to do the same when needed. 

2. Empower women to control their schedules

Ambitious women, particularly those with younger children, have hectic calendars. From sports practices and recitals to doctor’s office visits and early school dismissals, moms often feel like they have to be in two places at once. Of course, this is impossible, as everyone knows. But plenty of companies can allow their employees to adjust their schedules as needed.

For example, your organization might not be able to offer remote work all the time. However, you could potentially offer it as an alternative a few times per week. Remote work is hugely empowering. A Catalyst survey found that having access to virtual work arrangements made moms about one-third less apt to say goodbye to a job. Consequently, consider bringing this and other types of flexibility into your working procedures. Just make sure that women who take advantage of scheduling freedom aren’t penalized by being passed over for promotions or salary raises just because they occasionally work from home.

3. Refresh outdated hiring and mentoring practices

When sourcing new talent and looking over résumés, rethink what employment gaps may mean. Historically, employers have seen gaps in a negative light. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that a temporary employment pause means that the applicant is flighty or irresponsible. It’s likely quite the opposite. I’ve found that mothers who leave the workforce temporarily and are ready to come back often have much greater productivity than the average worker. 

Being a mother breeds efficiency, problem-solving, and leadership. If you can get a toddler or a teenager to follow directions, leading a team of adults feels like a walk in the park. And once you’ve found great women to bring aboard, help them avoid stress and burnout by giving them access to formal or informal mentorships so they understand that they can pave their paths and be rewarded for leaning into their novel skill sets.

Women still want to climb the corporate ladder and make their mark. And research shows that when they do, businesses are more profitable as a result. So the onus is on the current leaders to lend them a hand. You’ll be amazed at how quickly a determined woman will blaze an impressive trail after receiving a bit of encouragement and support.

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