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How Employers Can Help Women Return to Work

By Jessica Larson,

July 9 2021 - Some 1.8 million women lost or left their jobs during the pandemic and haven’t returned to the workforce. That’s bad news for everyone.

Removing those women reduces both the size and diversity of the labor force, robs employers of valuable perspectives, and can negatively impact collaboration and team building. With daycare services closing their doors during the lockdown - oftentimes for good - many working moms felt pressured to choose between their careers and their kids. (Spoiler alert: A lot of them chose their kids.)

Others lost their jobs because they were working in fields hit hard by the pandemic that also employed large numbers of women, like hospitality, restaurants, and brick-and-mortar retail, which had been losing ground to online options even before the pandemic. Many of those jobs aren’t coming back.

As the economy evolves, it behooves employers to find ways to tap into the skills and experience of women who are no longer in the workforce. That means giving them a reason to return - and helping them find their way back. Here are some ways to do just that.

Find daycare solutions that work

It’s no wonder the child-care industry was hit so hard during the pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns made it impractical in many cases, while an increase in remote work reduced demand. For daycare operators, it was simply no longer financially feasible to remain open.

And those who did were struggling: More than 2 in 5 child-care providers were covering costs of supplies by using credit cards and personal savings, even as they were forced to pay extra for cleaning and personal protective equipment.

According to some estimates, the industry - which is more than 94% female - lost 1 in 6 jobs during the pandemic. Working mothers in other sectors, meanwhile, stayed home with preschoolers who needed care or school children learning remotely because physical campuses were closed.

In order to bring women back into the workforce, it’s imperative that businesses find daycare solutions. The coronavirus relief bill passed in December 2020 included $10 billion for child care, with $250 million for the Head Start program, which promotes school readiness for preschool-age children from low-income families.

Employers need to help women access dollars that are available through state and federal programs, such as flexible spending accounts for child care. Businesses can provide an employee up to $10,500 in 2021 for dependent care assistance that can be used for child care. Alternatively, working parents can claim a tax credit for child care (but they can’t do both).

Some employers may be able to provide in-house child care or partner with local daycares to offer discounted services. Options like these can help attract women back into the workforce by assuring them their children are taken care of and their salary will be more than their child care costs.

Offer financial incentives: salary, benefits, and more

Nothing says "we want you to work for us" like a competitive paycheck and a robust set of benefits. Women’s pay, unfortunately, continues to lag behind that of men. Commit yourself to eliminating the pay gap in your workplace, and offering the kind of benefits that are important to women.

In addition to child care, mentioned above, a strong retirement package such as a 401(k) with an employee match can help demonstrate an employer’s dedication to an employee’s long-term goals and wellbeing.

Some women, however, may not be able to pay into a 401(k). In situations like this, salary incentives offered in conjunction with educational and training programs to improve women’s skill sets can be helpful. So can partnering with financial experts to offer counseling on long-term goals like building or rebuilding their credit, repaying school loans, saving for homeownership, and investing.

Participate in returnships and continuing education.

More and more major employers, like Amazon, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, GM, and IBM, are offering or partnering with outside firms to set up returnship programs, which are internships designed for professionals who have taken a break from employment and are looking to resume their careers.

These programs can both identify talented women and prepare them to re-enter the workforce by updating and expanding their skill sets to match available positions.

As modern staff positions require more and more versatility and a broader skill base, employers are recognizing that few employees will come on board with 100% of the skills they need to hit the ground running. Employers who recognize this and provide the necessary training can snag the best kind of employees: quick learners who can adapt to changing markets and business environments.

Offering in-house cross-training to maximize versatility and outside educational opportunities to help women bolster their résumés and show a level of commitment to their interests that extends beyond the workday and the immediate benefits they can offer you. That will help you not just attract women to the workplace, but keep them there and productive once they’ve arrived.

Offer flexibility, not one-size-fits-all.

There is no cookie cutter schedule that works for everyone. Programs like 4-10 work weeks, the opportunity to work remotely, family leave, and generous vacation policies can attract women, as well. Just be sure not to confuse flexibility with 24/7 availability. Achieving work-life balance is impossible without the clear separation of the two.

Employers won’t be able to bring women back into the labor force overnight, just as they won’t be able to overcome decades of wage inequities and workplace discrimination without meaningful change. But working diligently to do so isn’t optional. If businesses want the best future possible for their employees, their customers, and the economy at large, these steps are mandatory.

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