Companies say they’re committed to retaining women. Now Covid-19 is torpedoing female employment, what steps should firms take to help?

In early April, soon after the US economy began its pandemic-induced nosedive, a group of researchers from Northwestern University published a paper that noted some unusual patterns emerging. “Regular” recessions – that is, routine economic contractions not spurred by a once-in-a-century pandemic – typically hurt men’s employment more than women’s, the authors wrote, as male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing are often the first to slow down. 

The Covid-19 recession, on the other hand, seemed practically designed to torpedo women’s employment. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines took a heavy toll on service and hospitality jobs, where women make up a large share of employees. They also shut down the support systems – schools and day-cares — that enable many women with young children to work. Grandparents, friends and neighbours who might otherwise have helped were off-limits for fear of contagion. 

These factors had the potential to push women out of the workforce en masse, the authors wrote. And without a concerted effort from employers to retain female talent, the damage to women’s careers could linger long after the virus is controlled. 

In the years since the #MeToo movement brought increased visibility to gender disparities in the workplace, companies around the world have publicly espoused a desire to boost the share of women in their ranks and ensure fair gender representation at the executive level. The Covid-19 crisis may test that commitment like never before. 

“There are a lot of companies who have thought about gender equity and have really tried to invest in promoting women, having diverse corporate leadership, and being a good place for women and mothers to work,” says Katherine Goldstein, a North Carolina-based journalist and the creator and host of The Double Shift, a podcast about working mothers. “We’re about to really see if that was lip service, or if that’s something that they’re committed to when the going gets tough.” 

New structures needed 

The early evidence of Covid-19’s impact on women’s careers is grim. At the beginning of 2020, women made up the majority of the US workforce. By mid-April, women’s employment had fallen to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. When families are forced into a situation in which someone has to cut back on work in order to care for dependents, it’s typically the lower-earning partner whose career takes the hit. In the majority of dual-income heterosexual partnerships in the US, that lower earning partner is female.

Closures of childcare facilities and schools have left many women juggling work and family

Closures of childcare facilities and schools have left many women juggling work and family

US families have largely been forced to figure out how to navigate the pandemic on their own: forming pods to share the home-school and childcare duties, and re-arranging schedules to accommodate competing demands at work and home. But forcing the burden onto individuals masks the role that employers have to play. 

“We don’t want this to be a… ‘Women, if you just pull yourself up this is going to be okay!’ [scenario] when in reality, we need to create structures that are equitable,” says Annie Warshaw, CEO and cofounder of Mission Propelle, a Chicago-based consulting agency that specializes in gender equity. 

During the pandemic, the primary changes workers have wanted from employers involve scheduling and flexibility, says Warshaw. With many working parents now dashing throughout the day between their laptops and their children’s online schooling, a switch from email to simpler message-based communication platforms like Slack can save valuable time that would otherwise be spent slogging through an inbox. (It takes less time to append a thumbs-up emoji to confirm receipt of a document than composing an email saying the same.) 

Schedules that consolidate work meetings into predictable chunks of the day are also useful to parents (and employees without children as well) trying to plan ahead for the week or organise care for their kids. Beyond that, however, companies should also revisit what constitutes a full weekday or workweek, and how they evaluate employee productivity. 

“There are only so many hours in the day. If we aren’t going to have childcare indefinitely, saying ‘You can just do your work from 7 pm to 2 am’ is not a sustainable solution,” says Goldstein. Given the high cost of replacing valuable workers, it might be more cost-effective for a company to keep an employee at the same level of seniority and salary but with a reduced hourly schedule. 

This is a particularly thorny discussion in professional services like consulting firms and law offices, where billable hours are tied to compensation, advancement and even continued employment. The Northwestern research team went so far as to recommend that companies waive all billable-hours targets attached to bonus pay for female employees with children under the age of 14. They also recommend a government subsidy that replaces 80% of worker pay for employees who need to leave the workforce during the pandemic in order to care for their children, though no major US political party or figure has yet advocated for this publicly.

Changing things at the federal level really does need to be the goal, because if it’s employer by employer, there are always going to be haves and have nots - Katherine Goldstein

If Congress doesn’t act ­– which seems likely, given its struggles to pass Covid-19 relief – then companies serious about retaining working mothers should step in instead, says Goldstein, offering employees direct subsidies to pay for childcare so that they don’t have to leave the workforce entirely. But that is only a stop-gap solution. The pandemic has already worsened income inequality. Lower-paid jobs held disproportionately by women and people of colour suffered the highest job losses at the start of the pandemic, and have been slower to recover since.  

“Changing things at the federal level really does need to be the goal, because if it’s employer by employer, there are always going to be haves and have nots, and it creates more inequality,” says Goldstein. 

Finding meaning 

There’s another piece to employee retention: evaluating not just how employees work, but also what kind of work they are asked to do. Working while raising children without school or childcare is hard. If an employee doesn’t feel particularly engaged or motivated by their work – and has the resources to make choices about it ­– they may opt to walk away. This is more likely if the job itself feels less like a calling than a replaceable gig. 

Finding meaning in work helps women remain in the workplace, experts say

Finding meaning in work helps women remain in the workplace, experts say

“In a world with a lot of competing priorities, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Why am I doing this?’,” says Leela Stake, a senior partner at public relations agency FleishmanHillard and head of the firm’s pro bono initiative. “More companies and organisations would be wise to think about how to make sure, especially for women, that people really feel like they are getting meaning out of their work.” Uniting people behind a purpose is important, she suggests. “In this time of crisis, if you're a healthcare leader, how are you making sure your team is addressing health equity issues to improve the lives of all patients? If you are a financial services leader, how are you galvanising your team to create real economic opportunity for people?”  

Finding meaning in one’s work isn’t a privilege reserved only for those in white-collar professions. Think of the famous (if apocryphal) story of US President John F Kennedy encountering a custodian cleaning the floors on a 1961 tour of Nasa headquarters who, when asked about his role at the agency, allegedly responded: “I’m putting a man on the moon.” In a study published in 2018 in Harvard Business Review, 90% of respondents across a range of professions and income levels said they would be willing to earn less over a lifetime at a job that felt meaningful than to earn more at one that didn’t. Employees who described their work as highly meaningful were also 69% less likely to be planning to leave their jobs in the next six months. 

At a time of great change, helping employees find a sense of value in their work can be the best retention strategy of all. “Most women are looking to get purpose out of their work, especially now,” Stake says. “I think there’s a real hunger to feel like we’re contributing meaningfully, and I think some of the less celebrated solutions lie there.”