With surging coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, many schools going virtual (again) and parents of kids who are still in school living in constant fear that this will change, workers are having a hard time holding on to their jobs. In November, 4.5 million people left their jobs, according to the Labor Department – the highest number since the government began keeping records. Women have been especially hard-hit, losing 2.3 million jobs in the formal economy since the start of the pandemic. The situation has wiped out the gains of an entire generation. The level of women’s workforce participation is now about the same as it was in the 1980s.
The level of women’s workforce participation is now about the same as it was in the 1980s.
While some women who have left the workforce aren’t earning income at all, others have turned to the informal economy, listing their homes on Airbnb, posting racy images on OnlyFans or driving for ride-sharing companies like Uber to pay the bills. But the informal economy leaves women without badly needed income stability and benefits. And the so-called Great Resignation has left businesses without the staffers they need to hire.
Fortunately, employers can do some relatively simple things to get women back into the formal workforce.
They should offer predictable schedules for workers who want or need them, for starters. One reason a lot of moms can’t hold down jobs in the service sector, for example, is that the times and days of their shifts change from week to week, making it impossible to arrange child care.
According to a 2019 study by the Shift Project, which analyzes data on work scheduling for hourly service workers, two-thirds of workers for the country’s largest food service and retail companies receive their schedules less than two weeks in advance, and 80 percent have little or no control over when they’re scheduled to work. In both the restaurant and the retail industries, women make up half of the employees. Offering predictable schedules that accommodate workers’ family needs would be a simple way to get more women (and, indeed, people of all genders) to take these jobs.
Knowledge workers also need scheduling predictability. Many of us manage our pandemic-induced child care challenges by working nontraditional hours, getting work done while our kids are asleep or on weekends when our partners are home. But we struggle when meetings are scheduled at times that don’t work for our families. For example, last week I was asked, on one day’s notice, to attend a meeting about a non-urgent topic with male colleagues who said the only time they were available was the exact time I pick my daughter up at school.
Situations like this don’t just cost moms unnecessary time and stress as we frantically scramble to arrange emergency child care. They also force us to increase our families’ potential exposure to the coronavirus by bringing additional child care providers into our homes. Something we’d strongly prefer not to do, especially as Covid hospitalization rates are rising for children under age 5 — who aren’t eligible for vaccines yet — and there are fears that the latest variant affects younger kids more severely because their airways are smaller. The buildup of situations like this is why many moms are leaving their jobs entirely.
But a few companies have recognized that it doesn’t have to be this way.
The team at Etsy has come up with a clever solution. Employees are encouraged to schedule all meetings between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The policy — internally called Prime Time — is brilliant because it’s an ideal time frame when kids tend to be in school. Or, if they’re not, it’s a reasonable number of hours when parents can plan to have child care available. This is precisely the kind of company for which I’d like to work, and I’d bet many moms agree — giving Etsy a valuable leg up in today’s hiring wars. Other companies would be savvy to follow suit.
Getting women back to formal work would also (obviously) help companies solve their hiring challenges.
In addition, companies that want to attract women should offer remote work and ensure that they treat their remote workers equitably. Women with some college education and children under 12 are more likely to want to work from home five days a week compared to their male counterparts, according to a study led by researchers at Stanford University.
This makes sense given all we juggle: In heterosexual marriages, when both spouses work full-time, women in the U.S. end up doing nearly 60 percent of the child care and more than 72 percent of the housework performed by the couple, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many moms, being able to squeeze in a load of laundry and unload the dishwasher instead of commuting each day is the only way to make our lives work. Working from home is also a way to ensure we’re nearby if our children or caregivers get sick during the day or our kid’s class unexpectedly shuts down because of a Covid case.
But many people also (justifiably) fear their careers may suffer if they work from home. Even though studies show that productivity has increased, many fear they will be passed over for a promotion. So, to attract and keep working mothers, employers need to actively guard against this kind of discrimination.
Some have already come up with clever ideas. For example, the corporate offices of the jobs site Indeed have explored analyzing data about pay and promotions to ensure that remote workers aren’t being penalized. Zillow plans to put almost all of its professional development programs online, so they’re accessible to remote workers. Other companies should be taking notes. And all managers should be given specific mandates to give the same amount of attention and feedback to remote and in-person staffers, so no one’s contributions go unnoticed and everyone gets the guidance they need to grow.
Of course, these policies wouldn’t just help women. They’d also be good for business. For example, I’d bet policies like Etsy’s Prime Time also make workers more productive, freeing them up to do their actual work rather than sitting in endless meetings that could’ve been emails. And when people work remotely, they have been shown to be more productive and save their employees the expense of maintaining corporate offices.
Getting women back to formal work would also (obviously) help companies solve their hiring challenges. What’s more, women’s perspectives are good for their organizations’ bottom lines. According to research by Goldman Sachs, companies with more female managers and board members outperform their counterparts.
Best of all, none of these policies would be especially costly or difficult to implement. They would just require companies to exercise what many of us moms try to instill in our kids: basic common sense and courtesy to others.