The COVID-19 gender gap: What employers can do to keep women on board

Experts say the enterprise should examine why the pandemic impacted workers differently and actively try to retain female employees or bring them back if they dropped out.

woman remote worker

Image: iStock/BartekSzewczyk

Women and Work, part 3 of a 4-part series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has majorly—and perhaps permanently—disrupted the way we work, forcing employees out of offices and into the digital workspace. While this has had some benefits for both employers, in terms of productivity and reduced overhead, and employees, who now have some increased flexibility and can cut out their daily commutes, there have been unforeseen setbacks, as well. And women are experiencing the brunt of them.

Since March 2020, a whopping 2.5 million women have been let go, fired or have resigned from their posts, versus 1.8 million men, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. This COVID-19 gender gap has been called a "national emergency" by Vice President Kamala Harris. Although being forced out of—or opting to leave—traditional workplaces has had a silver lining, in that many women are now taking the leap into pursuing entrepreneurship or self-employment, experts say it's clear that employers should take responsibility for what is happening; they need to examine why working in the pandemic has affected their female employees differently, what they can do to retain these employees or bring them back to work.

Traci Fiatte, CEO of professional and commercial staffing at Randstad US, believes that the "lack of flexibility is the reason many women drop out." From this explanation, it would seem that the new work-from-home environment, which in many ways is defined by flexibility, would be an asset: Preventing women from leaving their jobs. However, "flexibility," she pointed out, does not simply refer to the workspace or adjusting schedules. Sometimes, it means allowing employees to cut back on work if needed.

"Flexibility doesn't just mean when you work, but how much you work, the total volume," she said. For many workers, especially women, the increased flexibility has meant that they are overworking, stressed, and at risk of burnout. Ensuring that workers, especially women, are working a manageable load should be a top priority for employers. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Some companies, Fiatte points out, such as big financial companies, have taken on childcare or commuting costs. And some put measures in place to keep employees from working off the clock. PwC is one company that has been a model for others, by creating "protected working hours," according to Joann S. Lublin, Wall Street Journal's former career columnist and author of "Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life."

Afra Saeed Ahmad, program director of the master's of professional studies in applied industrial and organizational psychology at George Mason University, has been researching the factors important to women's well-being in the workplace. As she told TechRepublic, there are several factors that really matter. A recent study looked at how organizations can intervene. "Some resources that organizations can pay particular attention to," she said, "include having job autonomy, job crafting, social support and a high-quality relationship between leaders and employees."

Ahmad said that her research suggests that there are certain measures employers can take. Creating a gratitude log, for instance, "resulted in significant increases in positive affective well-being," and a "social connectedness exercise" helped "reduce workplace absence due to illness."

For companies that have already lost women employees or had lower numbers to begin with, John Souza, CEO of Kingsland University, weighed in on how companies can bring women back into the workforce. In terms of recruitment, he said companies must be "deliberate."

"It's important to consider their recruitment approach and processes to convey the desire to make their workplace accessible to women. Who is in your advertisements and promotional collateral? What stories are you telling about the experience at the company, and from whose perspectives?"

According to Souza, leadership should own up to their role in keeping women happy at work. They must be vocal about how they can be inclusive of women. "Consider writing into your mission where, over time, the company seeks to land in terms of its composition and culture," he advises.

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