Why companies are fighting to keep women from quitting

With women leaving in droves, there’s an increasing focus on flexible work policies

marraskuu 23, 2020

KONTROLAB / Light Rocket / Getty Images

Mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s burden – from full-time remote learning to full-time childcare – all while working full-time jobs.

It has resulted in an outflow of women from the workforce that’s worrying both companies and economists.

In September, more than 600,000 women left the U.S. workforce — eight times more than the number of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in four women is considering downshifting her career or leaving the workforce entirely, according to a study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org.

If this trend continues, companies’ effectiveness — and even the economy at large — is on the line, says Ryan Severino, Chief Economist, JLL. Women who have left the workforce are significantly more educated than their male counterparts, he says, and without these women, skilled positions are harder to fill.

So companies, fearing widening talent gaps that reduce productivity, are clamoring to attract and retain female employees with flexible policies and workspaces that accommodate mothers. 

For example, social media company Snap Inc. partnered with the app Helpr to offer its employees subsidized childcare. Retailer TJX Companies Inc. created a subsidized on-site daycare facility within its headquarters in Framingham. JLL built upon its existing Well-Being portal to include, among other things, trainings for managers on how to create an environment that accommodates individual employees’ needs during unprecedented challenges, such as children taking classes on Zoom. The company also created caregiver resources and a Parent and Caregiver Experience Business Resource Group.

“Parents with children who are learning remotely are now de facto principals and school IT managers,” Severino says. “This is a challenging situation for the whole family, but it’s mothers who are leaving the workforce because of the burnout.”

While the U.S. has seen some bounce back in jobs from the beginning of the pandemic, those gains have mostly occurred at the service industry level, Severino says. While some women on the lower end of the income spectrum have returned to work out of necessity, others who have more financial flexibility have not. Women who have the financial freedom to exit the workforce leave hard-to-fill skilled positions in their wake.

“We are starting to see how this is beginning to play out in Corporate America,” he says. “Enough highly educated women dropping out will certainly slow economic recovery in the medium term. But over the long-term, these women risk losing their footing on the corporate ladder while their employers risk permanently losing valuable talent. All of which reverses the progress being made before the pandemic.”

Flexible culture

To prevent more women from leaving the corporate world, and the corresponding productivity losses, companies are embracing flexible work and childcare policies, but also a culture that allows those policies to be the norm, says Mary Bilbrey, Chief Human Resources Officer, JLL.

“Employees are experiencing the crisis very individually,” Bilbrey says. “Catering to individual needs and circumstances goes a long way. We’re encouraging and empowering managers to understand the nuanced circumstances of their team members and create flexible solutions.”

A working mother who has a child with Autism has different circumstances than a woman without children who is the caregiver to two elderly parents. A mother of a teenager is facing different challenges than a mother of a newborn. There are financial differences that determine access to childcare. And then there’s grief and race — two of many nuanced factors in play. A recent McKinsey study shows Black women are more likely to experience the death of a loved one during the pandemic than women of other racial groups.

In addition to allowing employees flexibility in the areas where they need it most, many companies have created policies in reaction to working mothers’ biggest challenges. Some have adopted a “no calls during lunch or dinnertime” policy to promote family time. Others suggest no calls during times that are the most challenging in the remote learning process.

“Leading with empathy and flexibility is the path to retaining female employees who are at risk of leaving, and more generally focusing on employee well-being will be at the forefront of the future workforce,” Bilbrey says.

Real estate solutions

Working from home full-time may be the best long-term solution for some mothers, but not others.

“I think that more people than we are imagining will want to go back [to the office] and I also think that when we go back, we will want it to be different,” Jessi Hempel, Senior Editor at large, LinkedIn, said on the podcast So Money. “[M]any of us actually miss…leaving a place every morning. We miss the lunches…with people that [we] saw every day but weren't related to. The thing is that when we go back, we will still want it to be less structured.”

Many companies are adopting policies that allow the flexibility to work from home and in the office, says Gabrielle Harvey, Vice President, Brokerage, Integrated Portfolio Solutions, JLL.

“You'd think that working from home would be better for caretakers, but many also need the physical space to separate and concentrate,” says Harvey, who also chairs the professional and personal development group at the Boston Club, an organization whose charter is to get more women in C-suite roles and on corporate boards.

Some companies offer on-site childcare, allowing mothers easier access to see their kids at pivotal points in the day, while also having heads-down work time, she says.

If that’s not an option, companies can convert unused or short-term office space into online learning hubs so that parents can bring older kids to work while remaining productive, she says.

“According to JLL’s Occupancy benchmarking guide, the actual utilization rate in office space pre-COVID-19 averaged 60%,” Harvey says. “While the pandemic has obviously created many challenges, in this case, it’s actually giving companies some breathing room to make changes that will help them retain and attract women.”

Reversing progress?

Three years ago, without a pandemic that forced many mothers to become pseudo-teachers and full-time caregivers, U.S. women were leaving the workforce, in large part due to a lack of paid parental leave, in addition to other factors that are still in play today, says Julia Georgules, Director of Research, East and Canada, JLL.

“With wages still not equal between men and women for the same work, the higher earner is often the male partner,” she says. “That’s why the high cost of childcare frequently results in mothers making the choice to stay home to care for the children.”

In December 2019, women became the majority in the American workforce for the first time in history. Data released that month by the country’s Bureau of Labor Statistics showed women holding 50.04% of all available positions.

 Now, that progress is being undone.

“The progress toward pay equity and women in leadership roles was moving slowly — and now it’s reversed,” Georgules says. “This affects more than just productivity. It’s been proven that companies with a higher percentage of female leaders are more innovative, and innovation is needed more than ever to navigate the current economic landscape.”