Invest in Work-Life Resources for Women

mother working from home on laptop and phone with two young children and kittens playing around her
By Kathryn Sollmann

4 minutes

Here’s how you can help retain female employees and keep them on an upward career trajectory during and after the pandemic.

More than one in four women say the pandemic has or will likely force them to quit or scale back their jobs, according to McKinsey and Lean In. The “Women in 2020: Choosing to Move Up the Career Ladder—Or Not?” survey reveals even more troubling data. Pandemic or not, only 5% of mid-level women today say they have the bandwidth for top leadership jobs. Two-thirds of women hide this fact from employers. Senior talent pipelines have far fewer women than employers think.

Yet, employers have historically done little to stop this exodus—and many are not springing into action now.

Employers seem unwilling to focus on the messy fact that professional women may be shouldering up to four big jobs: the paycheck-generating job and up to three additional unpaid roles caring for children, aging parents and households. The prospect of taking on a 24/7 senior leadership role is little more than a pipe dream for women hanging on by a thread. This has always been true, but the recent addition of pandemic childcare and remote learning challenges are stalling the career aspirations of those who might otherwise appear to be flying fast toward the top.

How Can Employers Slow the Exodus?

Enlightened HR professionals know that a holistic approach to employee well-being can boost retention. Programs led by outside experts can help employees, for example, manage personal finances and increase wellness—eliminating the need for employers to stray from topics outside of their realm of business.

While distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has sparked optimism, vaccination is still months away for many workers and their children. Now is a critical time to bring in more experts to help women, especially, and find answers to the questions worrying them most: What are best practices for remote learning? Should we consider a learning pod? How does virtual childcare actually work? What if I can’t afford a full-time caregiver? How are traditional childcare/education options flexing during the pandemic? What should I do if my child is falling behind?

Worry about questions like these reduce productivity. Already, companies lose $12.7 billion each year due to childcare-related absenteeism—and now that number will grow.

No one can predict exactly how long the pandemic will continue to upend our lives. Parents may need to quickly pivot as the pandemic ebbs and flows. Understanding all childcare/education options and how they can fit various scenarios is key.

Many women who are just trying to get through every day simply don’t have time for research, and a common assumption is that only traditional and limited resources are available. When the world is upside down, the easiest thing to do is to leave the workforce. What women don’t know is that an array of innovative in-home and community resources have emerged to help parents during the pandemic and beyond.

These are just three examples:

  • Flexable’s on-demand virtual childcare fills childcare gaps and frees parents up for last-minute meetings by providing one-on-one or group care for children ages three to 10 nationwide.
  • Kunik’s online community is guided by certified experts who provide coaching, practical tools and the emotional support needed to integrate work and family. A COVID Care program helps managers lead remote teams with empathy and targeted support, and the company also provides learning pod matching.
  • In Massachusetts, NeighborSchools helps experienced educators launch and operate licensed home-based childcare programs, and a software platform then helps parents find these affordable childcare providers in local neighborhoods.

With all this innovation, no employer needs to solve childcare and education challenges for employees. But they do have an obligation—especially during a pandemic—to keep the talented women who contribute to their bottom line productive and on track for long-term financial security.

At many organizations, the infrastructure exists to have valuable conversations about new resources and childcare/education best practices through women’s and parenting employee resource groups. (If your credit union doesn’t have any ERGs—for example, for women, parents or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) employees—ask your senior leadership team to consider sponsorship for such a group.) However, the budgets for these ERGs are often at subterranean levels that suggest political window-dressing rather than powerful vehicles to help employees blend work and life. The issues women are facing today are deserving of focused attention, including HR dollars.

Once talent goes out the door, it’s hard to get it back: Women say they’ll stay out “a couple of years” until things are in order at home—or the current sentiment, until everyone is vaccinated and there is herd immunity to COVID-19. But life continually happens, and women stay out of the workforce for an average of 12 years.

Avoiding the talent drain doesn’t have to be difficult. Just focus on simple work-life resources. To have the comfort level to stay in the workforce, women need continual signs that employers understand their work-life challenges and always find ways to help.

Kathryn Sollmann is a career coach, speaker and author of Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead. Her faculty of 24 childcare and education thought leaders engage corporate women in “Thinking Outside of the Sandbox” webinars, and she recently launched The 4 Jobs Club—an online community for women who share strategies for managing multiple work and family responsibilities.

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