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Equitable Policies Aren't Enough: How Companies Can Shape the Future of Work for Women

April 11, 2022

At a Glance

Employers can play a key role in creating the conditions that foster equitable outcomes for women in the workforce, and they can start by changing their companies’ cultures, not just their HR policies.

Practices & Centers Topics

As the country finally begins to return to some semblance of normalcy, companies have an unprecedented opportunity to help create a better future of work for women. They can do that not only by adopting or improving personnel policies that provide women with the supports they need to focus on their jobs, but also by creating equitable and inclusive workplace cultures that eliminate barriers to advancement and encourage women at all levels to bring all of their skills and expertise to their work.

“The role of employers in supporting women extends beyond honoring legal protections and providing adequate benefits and supports,” says Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “Employers must do the harder work of changing the workplace culture.”

Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, masking policies are being lifted, schools are largely up and running, and the economy has shown impressive growth following the steepest, but shortest recession in U.S. history. Many workers have even returned to the office, though large numbers continue to work from home.

But despite those developments, the U.S. labor market has undergone a transformation that includes an exodus of women from the workforce. After almost 48 million people quit their jobs amidst “the great resignation” in 2021, another 4.8 million did so in January 2022. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) monthly jobs report for January 2022 showed that men had regained all of the jobs they’d lost since February 2020, more than 1 million women who had left the labor force during that time had yet to return. Employers should work to understand the motives of all of the workers who left their jobs, but they need to pay particular attention to the factors that have left so many women on the sidelines.

Inequitable Impact

During the first half of the pandemic, the economic downturn had an inequitable impact on women. In March of 2020, the total U.S. employment rate for both men and women was 4.4 percent, but just one month later, 16.1 percent of women were unemployed, compared to 13.6 percent of men. Though the gender difference fluctuated throughout 2020, ultimately, women’s labor force participation dropped by 3.4 percent compared with 2.8 percent for men. The numbers were even more inequitable when considering female unemployment rates by race. In January 2021, 6 percent of women ages 20 and over were unemployed, with Latina, Black, and Asian women experiencing unemployment at 8.8 percent, 8.5 percent, and 7.9 percent, respectively. In April 2021, approximately one-third of the women who had exited the workforce cited caregiving responsibilities as the primary reason for their departures and relatedly, net job gains for men that month represented 102 percent of the 328,000 jobs that the April 2021 BLS jobs report said were added to the economy. Many women continue to cite caregiving responsibilities as the main factor excluding them from the workforce, but others credit changes in circumstances related to things like a desire to learn new skills or change careers.

  • 16.1% of women were unemployed, compared to 13.6 percent of men in April 2020
  • 6% of women ages 20 and over were unemployed in January 2021
  • 33.33% of the women who had exited the workforce cited caregiving responsibilities as the primary reason for their departures in April 2021

If circumstances don’t change, we not only stand to lose ground on decades of hard-won progress for women in the workforce, but also squander the economic potential of women who are now either the equal, primary, or sole earners in 40 percent of U.S. families—and in turn limit the potential for wider economic gains.

Supporting working women is not only the right thing to do; it’s a business imperative. Companies with higher percentages of women in the workplace have been shown to have better ratings of overall job satisfaction and organizational culture, which can lead people to feel more engaged in their work, resulting in lower rates of turnover. Moreover, women overwhelmingly lead the charge on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and often carry a disproportionate load of mentoring, sponsoring, and supporting coworkers and subordinates—activities for which they should receive more recognition and perhaps higher levels of compensation.

Moving Beyond Policy

Employers have two levers they can use to effect change that improves conditions for women in the workplace: company policy and company culture. Adopting or enhancing human resources policies to ensure that employees have benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, paid sick days, and flexible scheduling options are the most basic steps companies can take. But if they truly want to create the conditions that foster equitable outcomes for women in the workforce, they should go further and address cultural issues that have created barriers to advancement for women at all levels—conditions that have been described with names like the “sticky floor,” the “broken rung,” and the “glass ceiling”.

Here are a few ways visionary corporate leaders can support women by advancing culture change within their companies and throughout the workforce:

  • Assess your culture: Proactively review your company’s working conditions and take steps to create an inclusive culture that recognizes the unique skill sets that women bring to the workplace and the value their contributions holds for your organization.
  • Advocate for women: Teach all of your employees about diversity, equity, and inclusion and the importance of disrupting bias. And think beyond your organization to push for larger-scale changes in federal and state policy that create better working conditions for women (measures that advance paid leave programs or employment protections, for example.)
  • Include all women: Remember that women are not a monolith, and every individual requires different supports and benefits to thrive at work. From the C-suite to the front lines, ensure that all of the women who work for your organization have access to the same supports and benefits.

Jobs for the Future is exploring this issue with a group of corporate leaders who are committed to tackling today’s evolving workforce challenges through our most recent Action Collaborative series, Women in the Workplace: Retaining, Supporting, and Advancing Critical Talent. You can find more information here.

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