Employers have always wanted to keep their best talent around, but it's become increasingly challenging in recent years – particularly amidst "The Great Resignation," which has seen workers leaving jobs in record numbers.
Improving retention is complicated, and gender differences add to the complexity. More than two years after the pandemic began, men have returned to work at a higher rate than women. Women's labor force participation is still a full percentage point lower than it was prior to the public health crisis. That means an estimated one million women are still missing from the workforce.
Why haven't women returned to their careers at the same rate as men? And more importantly, as an employer, how can you best support the women within your organization – and encourage them to stick around?
In a recent Culture Amp webinar, several experts dug into the data to answer these questions and provide ideas for managing the retention of working women and caregivers in the workplace.
Support women and caregivers in the workplace
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Why did women leave the workforce (and why haven't they returned)?
Not all of the skyrocketing employee turnover during the pandemic was explicitly related to gender. Employees of all backgrounds experienced similar challenges and frustrations, like shifting personal priorities or disappointment with how their companies responded to social movements.
The uncertainty of the early pandemic also impacted turnover. Many people hung onto their jobs at the height of the crisis when they were unsure about their ability to find a new position. Once they felt more confident about having other options, turnover spiked.
While those experiences aren't unique to women, caregiving adds another layer of complexity to their departure from the workforce. Women still shoulder most household and family caregiving responsibilities – data shows that they spend 50% more time providing care than men.
As schools closed and daycares shuttered, many women felt they had no choice but to leave their careers behind to meet their families' needs. A McKinsey study found that women with children were far more likely to leave their jobs in 2020 than men with children.
For example, certain industries – like hospitality – are female-dominated but haven't fully bounced back as they deal with ever-changing public health regulations and mandates. However, there are larger issues at play.
"The pandemic held up a magnifying glass to some really problematic systems that were already in place," said Nani Vishwanath, Facilitator and Consultant at The Courage Collective. "And now companies are asked, 'Are you going to do something about it?'"
What can organizations do to retain women and caregivers?
So, what can employers actually do? First, organizations must recognize that there is no going back to the pre-pandemic status quo. While the pandemic might have exacerbated some of the changes and challenges we're seeing, this is ultimately about the evolution of the workforce. Employees have changed, so work can't stay the same.
That means it's time for employers to get creative. "Do what you can to support your people," explained Julie Li, Chief People Officer at a stealth startup. "You can't fall back on, 'Oh, we don't have the funds for that.'"
There are a number of levers that organizations – whether they're small or large and have minuscule budgets or major funds – can pull to rally behind women and caregivers and encourage them to stick around for the long haul.
1. Start by listening
"There's really great value in the simplicity of listening," said Nani. "When leaders and companies are able to say, 'This is a big problem. We're losing a lot of people, we're losing a lot of women, and we are so concerned about that that we want to make a change,' I think there can be a big impact on employees who may feel like they're suffering in silence."
However, for these conversations to make an impact, it's essential to have a foundation of trust between leaders and employees. Julie recommended making trust the bedrock of your organization, and noted, "You don't have to have a single dollar to have that."
With that trust established, stay interviews can help you get answers to questions like:
- What would make you want to continue working here?
- What do you love about working here?
- What would you change about working here?
You can combine those answers with employee data to make informed decisions about how to move forward – what benefits you want to offer, what cultural values you want to shift, and what challenges you want to address.
Conversations at the organizational level aren't the only ones that matter. Nani emphasized that managers must be equipped to have these conversations one-on-one with their team members. That might mean offering managers additional training on how to have these productive discussions and exemplify a culture that supports women and caregivers.
2. Prioritize and support flexibility
Flexibility became a buzzword during the pandemic, and for a good reason. 54% of employees worldwide say they'd consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they don't have some level of flexibility in when and where they work.
It may be tempting to write off flexibility as a bonus or a perk, but it's a necessity for employees who are balancing work and caregiving.
Offering employees more flexibility isn't as simple as sending out a "Work wherever and whenever you want!" company announcement and sitting back to watch the magic happen. To do flexibility right, you need to have systems in place to support it. You'll want to consider:
Unspoken norms: Do you tout "work-life balance" as one of your values but have managers emailing at all hours and expecting immediate responses? Pay close attention to habits, routines, and norms that might slide under the radar. What leaders do says far more about your commitment to flexibility than anything else.
Equitable decision-making: Make sure you're not punishing people for taking advantage of flexibility, particularly when it comes to missing out on decisions. Nani encouraged people to avoid making decisions at last-minute meetings, as this can disadvantage those who were unable to attend. Before making a decision, Julie recommended that people look around and ask who's not there. Before making a choice, confirm that you have all the right voices in the room.
Asynchronous work: A truly flexible culture is built on asynchronous work. This means implementing options that allow employees to chime in without being present in real time. For example, Julie's organization uses a shared document (which they call a "thinking spot") where people can drop opinions and ideas.
Clear communication expectations: "Programs like Slack or email are really bad for emergency communications because there's no way to know it's an emergency until you read it, which means you've already engaged with the work before you can determine if you should've bothered," said Ken Matos, Director of People Science at Culture Amp. His team opts for phone calls in case of rare emergencies. Employees can take advantage of flexibility without constantly checking in, knowing they'll be interrupted if something urgent happens.
Considering these elements will help your organization actually support a culture of flexibility rather than simply offering it.
3. Model healthy behaviors
No matter how many lofty promises or clever catchphrases you come up with, employees will learn the most about your culture by observing their colleagues. Their interactions and experiences will help them understand the norms of your organization, and they will follow suit.
When it comes to caring for caregivers, women, and employees of all types, it's up to leadership to set an example. In the case of flexibility in particular, it's valuable for leaders to call attention to the times when they take advantage of that wiggle room.
"On Slack, say, 'Hey, I'm taking my daughter to the doctor or a haircut or dance practice,'" suggested Julie, offering an example of the simple things leaders (especially men) can do to reinforce their commitment to flexibility and their acceptance of employees' intersectional identities.
By modeling that behavior and showcasing their own experiences, leaders give all employees permission to do the same thing without guilt, judgment, or fear of repercussions. "It makes people feel much more comfortable and relaxed," Julie added.
4. Explore tactical solutions
All of the above steps foster an environment where employees can thrive. But, making a meaningful difference for employees who balance their professional lives with caregiving requires real, tangible changes, such as addressing pay disparity. This makes your organization more equitable and has far-reaching impacts on women in the workforce as a whole.
"One of the things we noticed in the research was that when there's a pay disparity, the family does a very logical thing of saying, 'Who makes more money?'" shared Ken. "If there's a pay disparity that favors men, we find that families make a very logical, but not particularly desirable, decision to put his career forward."
"And so the impact sort of amplifies itself over time, as you not only underpaid her, but you create this pressure for the family to keep thinking of her salary as a bonus and her career as secondary in order to make things function."
Beyond that, some employers choose to offer a caregiving stipend to help offset the burden of providing care – whether it's childcare, elder care, or something else. If you don't have the resources to manage that, you could also explore a partnership with Care.com or a similar platform, which is especially helpful for employees who need to manage being a single caregiver and working full-time.
Some companies even offer on-site daycares or emergency care facilities so employees don't have to scramble to find reliable childcare.
Exactly what benefits you offer will depend on your company's size, budget, and available resources, but real support involves more than feel-good sentiments. When 34% of working mothers report childcare concerns as the top reason for voluntarily leaving the workforce, employees need tangible solutions.
Support the person, not just the employee
Employee retention has always been a top priority for organizations. But, now more than ever, there's a slew of non-work-related issues that impact an employee's ability to stay with a company or in the workforce.
That's not going away. Be mindful of all the different roles your employees are juggling and offer meaningful support for all of their identities – not just those that are "clocked in."