American Employers Are Failing Women. It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way.

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While it will be years before we fully understand how the pandemic impacted the economy, we know now that women are suffering. January’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) jobs report showed that all of the 140,000 jobs lost in December 2020 belonged to women. This statistic, while astonishing, is likely not surprising to most women: they account for 55% of all COVID-driven jobs loss and 2.3 million women have left the labor force entirely. At 57%, the women’s labor force participation rate is at its lowest point in more than three decades. Minority women, including Black women, are struggling even more.

These harrowing figures should serve as a clarion call to employers across the country, who must do everything possible to reverse these trends. After all, a 2019 study found that increasing gender parity in the workplace could increase global market capitalization by $5.87 trillion over the next decade. The good news is that there are several tangible steps that employers can take to help women get back to work and thrive.

First, we must understand why labor market forces are adversely impacting women in the first place. Surveys show that one in four women who left the labor force in 2020 did so because of a lack of adequate childcare — twice the rate of men. This reflects the fact that, even in 2021, two out of three caregivers are women. The pandemic is therefore having a unique impact on women, and the true displacement figure is surely higher: the survey does not account for other forms of caregiving, including for the elderly.

Reversing this phenomenon is possible if employers implement flexible working environments and benefits. Doing so would help create a safety net for women, regardless of their domestic responsibilities.

Even with the best caregiver benefits, employers will still need to allow for workplace and schedule flexibility where possible. Despite widespread work-from-home policies, productivity is rising during the pandemic — a sign that employers should allow for permanent flexibility of hours and geography even when COVID-19 is a distant memory. It can make a world of difference for a woman who needs to take a daughter to violin lessons or an elderly father to the cardiologist.

In addition to better supporting female employees, it is equally important for employers to re-imagine the way in which they craft job descriptions and postings to better attract top female candidates. For example, research shows that job descriptions with words associated with male stereotypes like “leader,” “competitive” and “dominant” illustrate unconscious biases that may discourage women applicants and unintentionally result in more male applicants. To combat this, leaders should make a concerted effort to use feminine-inclusive language, such as “support” and “understanding,” while also emphasizing specific benefits, highlight their commitment to diversity and check for words that may discourage an applicant from applying at all.

Inclusive job descriptions and expansive caregiver benefits will get women in the door, but then businesses need to help them thrive. To do so, employers should host regular trainings on diversity, unconscious bias and workplace harassment. Less than a third of employees are offered unconscious bias training despite many saying they are the best way to achieve gender equity. Hosting these trainings signals to workers that their boss is serious about creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, businesses must establish clear metrics and processes against which employees are evaluated for leadership positions. This can be as simple as setting concrete performance goals for every position: data shows that women frequently get less credit for team success and get more blame for failures. Concrete metrics can change that. The fact is that diverse hiring alone is not enough. Truly diverse workplaces are only possible when new hires are developed and advanced, and far too many companies are currently failing: more than 88% of non-CEO executive roles are held by men, and 95% of CEOs are men.

Taken together, these steps will help employers build more inclusive workplaces for women. It is true that there will be much more work to be done, but there are clear ways for employers to start to create the welcoming workplace American women have deserved for so long.

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Audra Jenkins is Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Randstad North America.

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