Women are leaving the workforce in droves — and companies will suffer. Here are 5 urgent steps employers must take to help women succeed in the workplace.
- Allison Baum is a general partner at early stage VC fund SemperVirens. She previously worked as an early employee at General Assembly and on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs.
- For years, women have been bearing a heavy double burden of performing at work while taking on the majority of family responsibilities, leading 865,000 women to leave the workforce back in September 2020.
- Baum says employers need to deploy resources to support women at work, because ignoring a large part of their workforce has affected business and the broader economy.
- In this op-ed, Baum recommends leveraging hiring platforms to hire women based on competency, not job history, providing resources for navigating childcare, healthcare, anonymous reporting, networking, and career coaching.
- "Similar to the trajectory of many major transformations, we've been hurtling toward the inevitable for many years. COVID has simply accelerated the pace," Baum said.
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If 2020 is any indication, there is a strong chance that 2021 will be a terrible year for women.
During shelter-in-place, any working human who has children or aging parents at home suddenly has had to face the reality that women have been living for generations: There is a heavy double burden of performing at work while also shouldering the majority of family responsibilities.
For the first time, we are being forced to recognize the social safety net that women have been providing for free.
Unfortunately, what 2020 has shown us is that when women fall, there's not another safety net to catch them. While that seems like a "women's issue", it will soon be everyone's issue as women exit the workforce in droves to prioritize their families, leaving a gaping hole of talent, economic value, and innovation that will take generations to recover.
If we recognize the crisis waiting to take center stage post-COVID, it's not too late to keep women at work.
Read more: Less than 10% of decision makers in venture capital are women. Here's a managing partner's advice for shattering the glass ceiling.
In fact, taking action to retain talented women and working parents will result in a better, more diverse, and resilient future of work.
Similar to the trajectory of many major transformations, we've been hurtling toward the inevitable for many years. COVID has simply accelerated the pace.
If we recognize the magnitude of the issue at hand, 2021 will yield innovation in childcare, health care, and family benefits required from both employers and the government.
The 9-5 workday was invented in the 1800s by labor unions and went mainstream in the 1920s, when women were less than 20% of the workforce (they are 47% of the workforce today). All that is to say that the 40-hour workweek was designed on the assumption that a woman was at home handling cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and childcare. Today, for the 77% of mothers that also work, that formula simply doesn't compute.
For years, many women hacked the system by outsourcing these tasks to trusted service providers, often at their own cost. Suddenly, COVID-19 took away that option.
Working parents in America are cumulatively losing 720 million hours per week to caregiving related issues, with women losing 49% more time than men. Even worse, 40% of working women say they must hide their caregiving struggles from colleagues, creating additional stress and anxiety as a result of their dual burden.
For so many years, women have been tolerating the challenge, holding out hope as they watched their workplaces slowly shift into more flexible models. Now, they can't wait any longer.
Sixty three percent of senior-level women have said they had to revise their career ambitions, and 25% of women say they are considering giving up altogether. Many have already started the process.
The country was shocked when in September, 865,000 women left the workforce, four times the number of men. For those who are choosing to stay, the wage gap hasn't budged, with women earning slightly less than 81% of men's median earnings in the third quarter, an increasingly stubborn statistic.
The same goes for entrepreneurs, as funding for female founders has dropped to a three-year low in spite of VC funding overall reaching new highs.
Employers are starting to see the consequences of ignoring the group of workers who, until now, made up the majority of their workforce, and have proven to be more productive than men by some measures.
Women leaving the workforce en masse hurts the broader economy as well. If only 1% of working mothers leave the workforce, that adds up to $8.6 billion in lost wages and $1.6 billion in lost federal tax revenue. If 1% of working mothers move to part-time jobs, that's an additional $5 billion in lost wages. That might seem like a big number, but it doesn't even begin to account for the lost long-term capital for investment, retirement savings, and spending.
What can we do to avoid this fate?
While I'd love to say we can count on a new federal administration to make sweeping changes, the US currently ranks 30 out of 33 member nations of the OECD in public spending on families and children. The UK leads the pack with over three times the benefits we provide our working parents. Ultimately, employers will have to step up to the plate, or risk losing more of their best employees.
The good news is there has been an explosion in innovation for women and families, creating a plethora of new opportunities for employers ready to leverage technology to retain and support some of their most valuable team members.
Read more: Read the spreadsheet women in tech are sending each other to find out how much they're making compared to their male coworkers
Here are five actional steps employers can take to ensure 2021 is not the beginning of the end of women in the workforce. I've marked portfolio companies of Sempervirens Venture Capital, where I'm a General Partner, with asterisks.
1. Hire women based on competency, not recent job history
With millions of women leaving the workforce in 2020, it is likely many highly qualified candidates will be left with gaps in their resumes, which often automatically removes them from hiring pools. Taking skills-based hiring approaches helps refocus the interview process on what candidates can do, not just where they've been, and hiring platforms like Powertofly and Mathison* focus specifically on sourcing and hiring underrepresented individuals who are often sorted out by traditional hiring platforms.
2. Provide additional childcare benefits for female employees and working parents before they ask for them
The reality is that they're not likely to ask you for these benefits first. The first step is helping employees help themselves, and companies like Kinside or Cleo* provide coaches as well as navigation tools to help employees understand the types and costs of services for all of their family needs, from conception to childcare.
3. Build a culture that normalizes the dual roles of childcare and work and allows women to ask for help
Even if you provide world-class childcare benefits for working families, a culture of shame that forces them to hide their dual roles can create additional mental health burdens. Anonymous platforms like AllVoices and Bravely provide mechanisms for anonymous reporting so that employees feel heard and supported without sacrificing their privacy.
4. Open your network to women, offering introductions and support where it can be helpful
Although employers can do a lot to help, peer networks are often the most efficient and effective way of helping women succeed. Sponsoring female employees to join communities like Chief, Enrich* or All Raise allows them to connect, support, and open doors for each other.
5. Empower women with the language and the resources they need
Women must be provided tools to have conversations at home about how to share and/or outsource caretaking — so they can focus on succeeding at work. Through an engagement with a company-wide coaching platform, or simply providing reimbursements for self-sourced support, personalized career coaching can be a game-changer for new managers or emerging leaders who are facing new, challenging conversations at both works and at home.
No matter what the future brings, there is no doubt we will look back on 2020 as a turning point for women in the workforce.
Given the right tools, employers are in the position to make sure women continue to move in the right direction, in spite of the temporary setbacks of COVID-19.
There are billions of dollars, millions of lives, and immeasurable potential for innovation at stake.
Allison Baum is a general partner at SemperVirens, an early stage VC fund investing in technology transforming the relationship between employers and employees.
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