The 'Great Resignation' should be viewed as an opportunity for organizations to review their support for women and better understand why so many women are leaving the workforce and what businesses need to do – or not do – to hire and retain them.
The difficulties women face holding down a career while juggling family needs were thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, which led to five million women dropping out of the workforce. The problem stems from an over-reliance on systems that allow women to participate in the workforce, especially working mothers with school-aged children. When schools closed and childcare disappeared, there were no other replacement systems, affecting women’s ability to participate in the workforce, suggests Jess Von Bank, Head of Marketing at HR consulting firm Leapgen:
Employers should care about that. That becomes an accommodation issue, that becomes a flexibility issue. What's happening with the Great Resignation is we're exposing all the stuff that was not ideal anyway. Everybody should have the equal opportunity to participate and contribute in the workforce in the way they want to and can, and that begs the conversation around permission - are we giving women permission to request accommodation?
It seems not. While many men also lost their jobs during the pandemic, they have since made up all of the losses, Von Bank notes, while conversely, of the five million women who lost jobs, over two million have left the labor market entirely:
They didn't find another job. Based on those statistics, the current level of participation of women in the labor market has backslid to 1988. We are in the same place as my daughters are growing up that we were when I was in grade school.
Offering true flexibility, with a policy of work from home as the norm, helps accommodate women, especially those in the sandwich generation caring for older parents and children. Just having the opportunity to take time away from work rather than having to rearrange school pickups or medical appointments, or deal with other family tasks can make a huge difference to women being able to remain in jobs.
Sharra Owens-Schwartz, Senior Director of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at Rocket Software, says:
During this pandemic, women were more likely to support other employees that they manage with their balance and flexibility. They were more engaged in diversity, equity, inclusion efforts. With all that, and managing their own home and careers, they were burned out. This is the opportunity to look at ourselves and say, What can we do to set up those infrastructures around flexibility.
The first step is to listen to women still in the workforce, or those who have left jobs, to understand the issues and how companies can do better. Owens-Schwartz adds:
Don't have whoever's in those executive leadership seats just hand down decisions to fix the problem. We need to get that infrastructure in so other women can look at our organization and say, they really know what they're doing. And let's keep the women that are here excited about it and more engaged.
Pay is another factor companies should focus on in their efforts to support women, not only around wage equity but transparency over the hiring process and compensation, argues Von Bank:
Take the taboo of pay off the table please. If you are an employer, pay a living wage, pay an equitable wage and be transparent. The pay gap, the fact that pay is this secretive taboo conversation, and we make people ask for and negotiate fair pay, it's completely disrespectful.
One of the pitfalls to avoid is focusing on recruiting more women without doing the equity and inclusion groundwork first. While every employer should have the goal of recruiting diverse talent, it can’t be viewed as a box-ticking exercise. Von Bank says:
If you recruit diverse talent and you have not created the environment that can support and develop them, that deserves them, where they can thrive, where they feel judgment free, a safe place to contribute diverse ideas, you have to do the other work first or your diversity efforts are going to go unrewarded on everyone's part.
Equity is your responsibility as an employer. Do that work first.
That work involves creating inclusive strategies that detect and eliminate bias, and support psychological safety. Only then will all employees start to feel as though they belong. Von Bank adds:
Belonging is how that feels when you have done the equity work and you have an inclusion strategy. Now I can feel like I belong here. I'm safe. I can contribute. That's the order of things. Now go ahead and bring diverse talent in and they will thrive.
Champions and advocates are vital for women, especially in the tech sector where they are still so outnumbered by men. Owens-Schwartz has her own experiences she has come across from her conversations with women in tech, including a woman being asked to take the notes at a meeting, and women not getting credit for saying something that is then repeated by and credited to a male colleague:
Oftentimes women find themselves as the only one in the room. For her not to always have to speak up and say could someone else please take the notes, I'm not the only one who could take the notes. For a man to say, she's not the only one or I'll do it or delegate that responsibility to someone else; or to say, that was a great point you made and amplify that - that's what an ally looks like. An active person who is engaging, who is helping to interrupt the behavior.
While women need individual allies and champions to speak up for them, the systemic problems around equality need to be tackled in a joined-up way. Von Bank explains:
If I wanted to fight crime, I can be a vigilante all day long. That's what it feels like to be a voice in this space. I can go out there and be a vigilante voice and try to drive change one to many. But if you hold decision-making authority, budget responsibility, that's where systemic change can happen. It’s saying, we as an organization have a zero tolerance policy for this, we as an organization are going to hold ourselves accountable to pay equity. That's when systemic change can happen, and vigilantism turns into an entire movement that says this isn’t acceptable anymore.
Holding companies and executive leadership teams accountable for commitments they make around diversity, equity and inclusion has become easier as employers struggle to compete for talent and fill vacancies. Von Bank concludes:
We're voting with our feet. We'll stay or go based on your proof of commitment and progress; not the promise, not the lip service, not the oath you put on your website, not the chief diversity officer you hired. It's a candidate-driven market, talent holds all the cards, so if you're playing catch up on your commitments, you're feeling the pain right now.
If you waited to do all of these diversity equity and inclusion commitments, if you waited until George Floyd happened, until the 'Great Resignation' hit, until the people demanded it - you're really playing catch up. Show that this is work that's meaningful to you and that you believe in all the time. We know when you hire us and we walk in the doors if this is real.