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Three Ways to Recognize and Support Women in the Workforce

Stephanie Sparks

Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) across the globe to recognize and acknowledge the incredible achievements of women socially, economically, culturally, and politically. This international celebration has taken place for more than 110 years, with the first event occurring in 1911. The theme of this year’s celebration is #BreaktheBias, where we strive for a world “free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination,” and where “difference is valued and celebrated.”

While this celebration takes place annually on March 8, IWD recognizes that the focus of its efforts must occur throughout the year, and requires a commitment of people and companies working together to promote the advancement of women every day. As a woman, a mother, wife, and member of the labor force, I am thrilled to be part of this celebration, and would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the challenges we face collectively, and the steps we can take to support women and advance their outlook in organizations today. Let’s first take a look at the state of play for women in the workforce, particularly those in the U.S. labor market.

The Setback for Women in the Workplace

Since the onset of the pandemic, the participation of women in the workforce has dropped drastically. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the labor force participation rate of women is at just 56.8% as of January 2022. And while the latest jobs report was positive overall, with more than 467,000 new jobs added that month, nearly 275,000 women actually left the workforce during January, according to a recent Fortune article.

Even worse, the rate of women participating in the workforce has not rebounded since the beginning of COVID-19, and the advances made over the last 30 years for women have been fully erased without promises for potential gains in the future.

While this data is alarming, it does represent an opportunity for employers and for employees alike. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, it should empower companies to move toward greater support and inclusion of women within the global workforce. Let’s take a look at three key areas where organizations can take specific actions to recognize and support women of all races, gender identities, orientations, abilities, and backgrounds.

Three Critical Ways to Support Women in Your Organization

#1: Acknowledge the Burden of Care Falls to Women

A friend of mine once said women today are expected to work like they have no caregiving responsibilities, and to serve as caregivers like they have no work. This paradox represents the reality many women are facing today. As a woman in the workforce, I have experienced first-hand the challenges associated with being a caregiver to children, once being forced to reduce my own work from full-time to part-time to keep up with the demands of both roles.

According to the Fidelity Investments 2021 American Caregivers Study, women spend double the time as male counterparts in providing care for children at 68 versus 34 hours per week. Further, 59% of women were forced to leave their jobs when caring for children versus 39% of men, 45% reduced their work hours, and 11% left the workforce for six or more months.

The same is true in caregiving for adults. Women are the predominate caregivers for the elderly, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, accounting globally for between 57% to upwards of 80% of all caregiving for the elderly. And according to the same Fidelity Investments Study, this had great impact to women as workers. In fact, nine percent decided to leave their current job, 17% reduced their hours to part-time, and one in five gave up work opportunities, including promotions, to continue their caregiving responsibilities.

Understanding that the burden of caring for others is real to women and has a tangible impact on them is the first step toward greater recognition of their contributions not only within companies today, but in overall society.

#2: Establish Programs That Support All Women

Addressing the burden that falls to women starts by creating a culture of inclusivity, flexibility, and accommodation. First, in relation to the caregiver burden, organizations can actively establish — and promote — flexible work hours, supportive leave policies, remote and hybrid work options, mental health services, counseling, and other employee assistance programs that directly affirm women in their roles.

Interestingly enough, the Fidelity Study reports that “64% of working caregivers said they had not asked their employer whether specific benefits or flexible work options were available,” but of those 36% who did ask, “61% reported their employer was willing to work to accommodate their needs.” This indicates the importance of actively having conversations and promoting these programs visibly within the organization.

Second, ensure that your company takes an active role in developing and focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Create a welcoming environment for all people that is inclusive of all walks of life — from age, race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, orientation, parental status, disability status, military status, and neurodivergence.

Top talent teams are familiar with creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. According to Jobvite research, part of Employ Inc., 49% of recruiters reported that candidates inquire about a company’s DEI programs during the interview process, and 44% consider the commitment to expanding DEI in their organization an important factor in accepting a job offer — but a surprising number of recruiters (20%) shared that their teams still aren’t planning to prioritize DEI in the near future.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, become a leader in relation to the disparity of women in the workforce. Work to actively change the tangible pay gap that exists, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, where women earn just 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. Focus on hiring women in underrepresented sectors, like technology. Deloitte reports that large technology companies are making “slow, but steady progress” with an increasing proportion of females in technical roles. In fact, over the past three years, the average number of women in these types of roles has risen nearly three percent to 25% overall.

Creating an environment where women feel welcome, supported, and recognized for their contributions both within the organization — and outside of work — will pay dividends for employee engagement, loyalty, productivity, and innovation.

#3: Stop the Bias of Employment History Gaps

One inherent bias that exists for employers today is generalizing employment history gaps for those individuals seeking work. Long gaps in work service are seen as negative to organizations and may blind them to potential talent who were fulfilling home or familial obligations in a system that does not support caregivers. The Fidelity Investments Study found that 53% of workers who were required to step away from their careers reported their time away was longer than anticipated, and 37% indicated they earned less money once they were able to return to work.

Fortune concludes that for the “millions of women who left the paid workforce at the start of the pandemic and haven’t yet returned, the two-year mark is significant. This is the point at which the gap in work history becomes much harder to overcome. In fact, as two years turn into three, one study suggests the chances of getting an interview fall by more than 50%.” For women wanting to re-enter the workforce, particularly after a long pause due to the pandemic, organizations must proactively support hiring women despite longer career breaks. They must awaken to the realization that caregiving should not stunt women’s careers. Instead, they should advocate for systems and structures that support the demands placed on women and demonstrate their commitment to the value women add in the workforce.

Celebrate Today and Let’s Get to Work Together

The International Women’s Day celebration is the moment organizations need to rally together, showcase the achievements of women, and support them in their efforts to create a more accepting, welcoming, progressive workplace. Let’s dig in and do the work together where the workforce becomes a representation of our society and values the holistic contributions of women in their jobs and in their lives.

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