A shocking statistic earlier this year reported that, in January 2022, men fully regained all the jobs they’d lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about women. Right now, the labor participation rate of adult women hovers around 58%, which is barely higher than 57% in January 2021—which was a 33-year low.
This isn’t just a women’s issue—it’s a business issue. During the pandemic, woman-dominated sectors experienced disproportionately higher rates of job cuts. These systemic issues prevent women from rejoining the workforce.
As a founding member of the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute (WEI) at DePaul University, I know firsthand the impact of addressing women’s obstacles as business issues: WEI businesses took a systemic approach, and every single one remained open throughout the pandemic.
Now, systemic issues prevent women from rejoining the workforce. When women are held back, business suffers, while empowering women supports economic growth. For evidence, consider the current state of employment. If more women rejoined the workforce, fewer companies would be struggling with understaffing. If you’re ready to end what was labeled early in the pandemic a “shecession,” you’ll need to change the systems holding women back. Here’s what you need to know.
Frame childcare as essential to a healthy business
When you hear that close to 3 million women dropped out of the workforce during COVID-19, it’s easy to write that off as a matter of individual choice. But the lack of access to childcare plus the shift to remote learning were systemic issues that forced women out of the workforce.
Research shows that the burden of figuring out how to care for children falls disproportionately on women. In fact, the number of women who became unemployed due to a lack of childcare was twice the rate of men. Shockingly, nearly one-third of parents decided who would take on childcare responsibilities based on “who was better at it.”
Women without college degrees, women of color, and women in households with lower income lost more hours due to childcare issues. Likewise, people of color—who were hit hardest by the pandemic—were more likely to keep their children home from school due to fears of the virus. This meant more women of color had to quit their jobs, or reduce hours, to care for their children.
Without expanding access to childcare, it will be difficult or impossible for women to return to work at the same rate as men. You can solve this problem by exploring childcare benefits for employees. On-site daycare or childcare subsidies are great, but so is offering more flexible work arrangements. A recent study by Catalyst found that women with childcare needs are 32% less likely to quit if they can work remotely.
Recognize the differences in gender expectations
If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that lockdown made these “women’s issues” also personal for many men. One-quarter of the women who became unemployed during lockdown cited childcare as the reason—and for many families, conditions might not improve.
A Center for American Progress report estimates that around 4.5 million childcare slots lost during COVID-19 could be gone for good. If rates of maternal labor force participation remain the same as they were during the early stages of lockdown, that would amount to $64.5 billion in lost wages for American families per year.
Even families that weren’t impacted financially during lockdowns have felt the strain of juggling work and family life during lockdowns. Men who might have been unaware of all the unpaid labor their partners were doing behind the scenes had over a year to observe it in action.
This forced awareness is a turning point. Capitalize on this momentum in the workplace by getting curious. Stop expecting women to assert themselves to be heard. A lack of awareness from even the most well-intentioned men prevents them from becoming front-line change advocates. One woman I know described the situation bluntly: “My boss doesn’t have a clue about how many balls I have in the air.”
You develop greater situational awareness when you understand the gender-power differences at home and in the workplace. Through this awareness, or “gender intelligence,” you’ll discover different perspectives that can inform and promote gender-equalizing policies and procedures.
Find a way for men to show support through inclusion
According to Boston Consulting Group, 96% of companies where men are actively engaged in inclusion efforts report progress. Leadership can show the men on your team that they are wanted and needed in the fight for greater diversity and inclusion. According to the White Men’s Leadership Study, 68% of white male participants were simply unaware that diversity included them.
Beyond communicating to men that you want them at the table, you must show men how putting women’s needs front and center benefits the entire organization. Research shows that organizations with gender diversity in leadership outperform less-diverse companies. Organizations with greater gender diversity are also more productive, creative, and appealing to investors. Fostering this diversity requires changes in workplace structures, roles, and employee benefits.
Until recently, most white men gave little thought to their privilege, and suddenly hearing the groups they belong to being critiqued can put them on the defensive. This isn’t to say that you should avoid tough conversations to accommodate privileged employees. Rather, it’s about creating an environment in which everyone wants to be part of the solution—not part of the problem.
The truth is, business contributed to the harsh reality women face. It’s time to start taking accountability and addressing the systemic issues that hold back half the population.
Tracey Wik is a business strategist, coach, and speaker. She helps leaders reinvent what is possible for their work and their lives, encouraging them to love Sunday nights instead of fearing Monday mornings.