Investing in the Future of Work Means Investing in Women
We’ve identified and invested in several companies that can help women overcome the challenges that make it difficult for them to advance in—and often even remain in—the workforce today.
This blog is the second in a series about the investment priorities of JFF Ventures.
The impact investing arm of Jobs for the Future, JFF Ventures supports and invests in early-stage companies that are building innovative technologies to drive learning, employment, and economic advancement initiatives that empower workers in low- and middle-wage jobs. We look for unique opportunities to advance solutions that have the potential to drive impact at scale.
The need for workplace gender equity has never been clearer. Beyond the moral rationale for equal workforce participation, there’s a strong case to be made from a macroeconomic perspective: According to Politico, research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that gender equity in the U.S. workforce would have boosted the country’s GDP by almost $500 billion in 2019. In addition, research published in the Harvard Business Review found that every 10% increase in the number women working in a metropolitan area is associated with 5% increase in wages for all workers.
At JFF Ventures, supporting women’s economic advancement is a cornerstone of our investment strategy. Our commitment stems from more than just a recognition of the economic benefits of supporting women in the workforce. This fight is personal: Our leadership team is 75% women, and 50% of the companies in our investment portfolio are led by women. We’ve experienced firsthand the gender-based challenges plaguing the workforce, and we’re ready to help accelerate what until now has been a slow trajectory of progress toward gender equity.
We believe it’s imperative to reimagine the workplace as a space of gender equity and inclusion, because when women thrive at work, everyone benefits.
What’s the Problem?
Workplace gender inequities were glaringly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. A staggering 3.5 million women left the U.S. workforce at the start of the pandemic in March and April of 2020, and in January 2021, 1.6 million had still not returned, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Layoffs resulting from business closures at that time hit women especially hard, because they are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs and didn’t have the option of pivoting to remote work, according to a Brookings Institution report.
One reason why women lack employment stability and have been leaving their jobs is because they continue to shoulder most of the caregiving responsibilities at home. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study found that mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to take on housework and caregiving, and 1.5 times more likely to spend an extra three or more hours a day on these tasks, which comes out to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job.
COVID exacerbated the scarcity of caregiving supports. Nearly 16,000 child care facilities closed during the pandemic and many have still not reopened, according to Fortune. In most areas, families with young children are spending more on child care than they are on housing, food, or health care, according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Workers in low-wage jobs are then faced with an impossible predicament: They don’t earn more than the cost of care they need.
Interestingly, according to the New York Times, college-educated women with babies and toddlers became more likely to work during the pandemic—probably because remote work gave couples more flexibility, including more opportunities for fathers to share child care responsibilities.
But they were still stretched thin, and women who have been able to remain in the workforce and persisted through the disruptions wrought by the pandemic continue to face long-standing challenges to advancing within the workplace. The gender pay gap still persists, and only 44 of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women—and only a handful of them are people of color.
We know that women need more equitable support, and we know that there is no silver bullet solution. Some of these challenges require shifts in policies and systems. Consider, for example, the reality that the overturning of Roe v. Wade is poised to drive women, especially women facing financial insecurity, out of the workforce.
So What’s the Good News?
We’ve identified and invested in several companies that can help women overcome the challenges that make it difficult for them to advance in—and often even remain in—the workforce today. And we’re on the lookout for more.
For example, one of the companies in our investment portfolio, Compt, offers a solution that can make it easier for women to balance their jobs with family and household responsibilities. Recognizing that benefits that enable workers to support their families can improve employee retention rates and promote gender equity, Compt developed a platform that employers can use to customize their benefits packages and offer flexible stipends that employees can use in almost any way they choose to defray the costs of all kinds of personal or household needs—from backup family care to reproductive health services or even emergency repairs of a broken hot water heater.
Employees seem to appreciate having a resource that gives them the flexibility to meet their families’ evolving needs: According to Compt, employers report that employee utilization rates of the Compt platform can run as high as 90%, whereas typical benefits programs often have utilization rates in the low single digits.
Compt CEO Amy Spurling is particularly passionate about providing a solution that addresses the need for equitable parental leave. “When employers don’t support the other half of a family in taking time to care for children, it forces women to take on that burden completely,” she says. “And then that never changes, and all that responsibility is shouldered by one partner for years, and the career effects compound.”
Another company in our investment portfolio, Beam, also focuses on helping families access the supports they need. Formerly known as Edquity, Beam offers a platform that helps government agencies, institutions of higher education, nonprofits, and philanthropic organizations administer a wide range of aid programs, from rental relief and public utility benefits to child care subsidies and emergency cash assistance, with software that streamlines the filing and processing of applications, aids decision-making, facilitates payments, and streamlines compliance, reporting, and case management. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Beam has administered more than $180 million in aid to roughly 300,000 households across the country.
In addition to investing in solutions that ease access to wraparound supports and family care benefits, we are also committed to empowering companies that offer other types of services and resources that have been thoughtfully designed to help women advance in the workplace. For example, two companies in our investment portfolio, Cell-Ed and NewCampus, offer innovative ways for workers to access the education and training they need to advance in their careers.
Founded by a woman in 2014, CellEd offers a system that delivers three-minute lessons through a range of mobile devices—even flip phones. This model is especially well designed for working woman because it makes it possible for users to keep up with training as they juggle work and household and family obligations.
For its part, NewCampus offers synchronous and asynchronous remote management training courses that accommodate the schedules of busy people who have to juggle multiple responsibilities. Of NewCampus’s 3,000 alumni, 67% are female business leaders.
We’re also looking to promote ideas that expand advancement opportunities and improve job quality in industries with workforces that have long been predominantly made up of women.
For example, CareAcademy, another one of our portfolio companies, helps nurses, home care professionals, and other essential caregivers continuously upskill with readily accessible, high quality online training. And WorkTorch offers a hiring platform for workers and employers in retail, hospitality, and other sectors of the service economy. Formerly known as QuickHire, WorkTorch uses an algorithm to match workers to jobs via a smartphone app. It’s easy to use for both workers who might not find jobs in their fields on typical job boards and employers that might not have fully staffed HR departments.
As a team of working women and parents, we are inspired to see startup founders tapping their lived experiences to create more equitable workplaces. The pandemic highlighted how far we have to go to achieve gender equity, and we are proud to support entrepreneurs who recognize the importance of creating a stronger, more equitable future of work.