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In rapid time, COVID-19’s gendered workforce exodus exposed decades of supposed progress toward parity as myth. Suddenly, decades of progress were undone as women left the workforce either by force or circumstance – and many still question if they can or will return.

By September 2020, just a handful of months into the pandemic, nearly one in four women was considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, according to research from McKinsey & Company. That’s in addition to all the women who left the workforce already, often with no choice in whether they left a job; throughout the pandemic, it’s been women — and particularly women of color — on the receiving end of layoffs and furloughs the most. Taken in tandem, by June 2021, women’s participation in the workforce had dropped to 56% — its lowest level since 1988. Many who’ve stayed are doing so in modified ways, with 17% of all working women reducing their hours since COVID began to meet unpaid care needs at home.

Experts predict women’s employment may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, a full two years after men are projected to have done the same. In the meantime, corporate America will be short about two million women, according to McKinsey’s estimates, across all seniority levels.

For women executives who voluntarily left the workforce during the pandemic, the reasons driving their decisions have been manifold. We heard from women about what led them to step away, whether they want to come back, and what companies can and should be doing to better attract — and retain — female talent in the future.

Why women left the workforce during the pandemic

Karen Rubin, an executive career and leadership coach, worked with several female execs who opted to leave the workforce during the pandemic, a decision she says was made “thoughtfully and with sadness.” 

“The women I coached through this transition were pushed to the brink due to caregiving responsibilities and children who were struggling due to the pandemic,” Rubin said. “They found the pressure of their jobs — and in some cases leading their teams — in addition to overseeing virtual school and teaching their kids to be difficult. But the force that pushed them over the edge was when their kids were struggling emotionally.” 

This left her clients feeling “exhausted and burned out,” she said, “as if they were failing both their teams and their families.” 

That’s a feeling Sara Feldstein, formerly a partner at a tax firm, can relate to.

“While I technically left voluntarily, it did not feel that way, as it was only due to burnout and depression caused by working from home while watching little kids and running my firm that this transpired,” Feldstein said. “Women have been put in such a difficult position this year. For most of us, our cup was already full, and COVID just caused it to spill over.”

For blogger Lucy Reyes, it was the expectation she’d absorb the work of laid-off colleagues on top of family needs that drove her to leave her supply chain management job early this year.

“My position was already quite stressful prior to the pandemic, but things definitely got worse as layoffs began,” Reyes said. “My workload went from a two-person job to handling the tasks of three full-time employees. As a working mother trying to also assist my son with virtual learning, it was nearly impossible to keep my sanity.”

Of course, childcare and demands at home weren’t a motivator for every woman. For some, like Carla Diaz, now the co-founder of Broadband Search, the pandemic simply exacerbated reasons they were already unhappy at work. Diaz had long sensed sexism at her former company, and when the pandemic began, she saw an out worth taking.

“Despite being a professional in my field, I wasn’t being treated like one,” Diaz recalled. “There was always this sense that I still somehow had to prove my experience in the field to others, despite my experience. When the pandemic came around, there was this moment where companies everywhere were left scrambling, and the opportunity to start my own company came about. So, I quit my former job.”

For still others, dissatisfaction with company leadership — including leadership’s handling of COVID — drove their departure. Jessica Mccune, formerly a marketing manager at an e-commerce company, says it was a “condescending, controlling and passive-aggressive boss” that caused her to give notice in January of this year.

“I was under an immense amount of pressure and stress constantly, which led to my physical and mental health declining rapidly,” she said. “Also, the company was very wishy-washy about COVID. Sometimes it would be a big deal if someone was potentially exposed or showed possible symptoms. But other times, it would be treated as no big deal… This made for a very hostile and unpredictable workplace.”

When — or whether — they’re coming back

This early into pandemic recovery, many women who left the workforce don’t yet have a plan for when they’ll reenter the traditional, paid workforce — especially those who are prioritizing their own recovery and creating new opportunities for themselves, like Feldstein. 

“I would have loved to return to accounting, but my burnout gave me such a distaste for a profession that I always loved that now anything related to accounting gives me anxiety,” she said. “I have been forced to walk away from my career and have started again by designing a toy and launching a toy company that designs multi-purpose toys with parents in mind.”

Like Feldstein, Megan Goldwasser is one of countless women using this moment to strike out on her own — a path she doesn’t plan to abandon anytime soon. Goldwasser calls her decision to quit her marketing job during the pandemic and start her own digital marketing and copywriting firm “the best move I’ve ever made — in my career and as a mom.” 

“Going out on my own has meant scheduling around my daughter and moving next door to daycare, because I work from home,” she said. “I’m making quadruple what I was in a more ‘professional’ setting. My clients are mostly large, global corporations, but I no longer have to call them my boss, and I won’t ever again.”

Rubin, meanwhile, says that many of the women she coaches who off-ramped during the pandemic do hope to reenter the traditional, paid workforce — but “not necessarily in the same way as before.” 

“Now that they’ve experienced the ‘silver linings’ of breakfast with their children or the freedom from a daily, long commute to the office, they are looking to work in a way that allows them to maintain some of these benefits,” she said. “Companies should recognize that employees can love their careers and also want to integrate their rich personal lives into the mix.” 

For some women, these adjusted, reimagined career options have already become available. Nikki Gonzales was managing partner at a real estate investment firm when the pandemic hit, forcing her to step down from that role to take care of her children. Today, she’s back in an executive role at a company, Quotebeam, that decided to expand its pandemic-necessitated remote policy into a permanent WFH option.

“The reason I felt that this would be a good fit for me, and a good opportunity to re-enter the workforce, is I now have complete flexibility in my schedule, and I manage remote team members across the world that can work when I can’t,” Gonzales said. 

Thanks to an established set of “core collaboration hours” with her executive team — a period of four hours, beginning at 9:30 a.m. — she says she can take charge of her work-life balance in a way that wasn’t possible before: “I am usually available for meetings during that time, and then the rest of the day I arrange my schedule as I see fit to be most productive and see to the needs of my family.”

What companies can do to better retain and attract female talent

To bring more women executives back into their ranks — and ensure they’re truly supported, in ways that will prevent a mass departure from ever happening again — companies must pay attention to a few key areas.

1. Offer flexibility, in meaningful ways.

It was a lack of flexibility that left many women simply unable to balance competing work and family demands during the pandemic — and that was a problem long before COVID, Nadia Charif, a health and wellness advisor at Coffeeble, said.

“It’s on businesses to recognize this problem as something that was there before the pandemic and work out how they can introduce more flexible working schedules so that women, and everyone, can truly have a manageable work-life balance,” Charif said. “Allowing more flexibility in the workplace will lead to a much more productive and engaged workforce while making sure they minimize the risk of people having to choose to step down in order to realistically make things work.”

2. End the stigma around employment gaps — for good.

Returning to work from a career break has long posed enormous challenges for women. Now that the pandemic has created employment gaps for so many, this could be an opportunity to eliminate the stigma surrounding gaps once for all, said Wesley Exon, CEO of Best Value Schools.

“Don’t question gaps in employment — a gap in employment doesn’t mean that someone is any less qualified to do their job,” Exon said. “The pandemic caused many women to quit their jobs out of sheer necessity, and that shouldn’t be held against them when they return to work. A gap for any reason, be it the pandemic or taking extended maternity leave, should never prevent a woman from finding work.”

3. Normalize unplugging, for everyone.

Everyone benefits from a culture that encourages workers to unplug and set work-life boundaries — working parents among them — said Tia Graham, Chief Happiness Officer and Founder of Arrive At Happy.

“Be cognizant of scheduling meetings during ‘family hours,’ such as a dinner meeting from 5 to 7 p.m., for example,” Graham said. “Try to avoid scheduling critical calls or meetings before 9 a.m., when working moms may be getting kids to daycare or school. Have a ‘tech-free’ evenings and weekend policy when possible.”

4. Actually address pay inequality.

When the pandemic and its accompanying school and daycare closures created a need for one parent to step away from work, that often fell to the lower-earning parent. And for women in hetero partnerships living under the gender pay gap, that’s usually them.

“To ensure that women aren’t forced out of the workforce en masse ever again, we should push for pay equality anew,” Solomon Thimothy, co-founder of Clickx, said. “This has long been an issue, but the fact that this recent pandemic was able to force women out of the workforce because they are almost always the lower-earning spouse in the house proves that the fight for pay equality is far from over.”

5. Promote diversity in leadership.

That doesn’t mean adding two people who aren’t white men to your board and considering a box checked. It means, among other things, creating a supportive work culture that allows all individuals to advance to the top, Laura Weldy, a women’s leadership coach, said. As women left the workforce, the lack of diverse leadership often exacerbated the lack of awareness and humane solutions to the problems they were facing.

“The most powerful thing companies can do to ensure that women or any other marginalized group aren’t forced out of the workforce en masse again is to prioritize true diversity in leadership,” she said. “The more voices, more representation and more perspective at the highest levels in an organization, the more agile you can become in responding to situations like the pandemic that may impact one group more heavily than another.”

6. Offer coaching and development opportunities.

The easiest way to retain female talent, Weldy added, is to “dedicate time and money toward developing this talent early and often.” Women left the workforce often feeling unappreciated, uncultivated, and like the pathways open to them weren’t worth the cost. 

“Companies who prioritize coaching for their employees — as well as cultural shifts toward growth and learning — see an increase in employee engagement and revenue,” she said. “Employees who are engaged, learning and feeling poured-into have more reason to stay than employees who feel stagnant… The clients I’ve worked with who aspire to eventual leadership positions always express a desire for more opportunities for development and growth earlier in their career, and will often go external to find that support when it isn’t provided.”

7. Hear from women directly.

One powerfully effective way to assess whether women have what they need for success at your organization? Ask them if they do, Stephen Light, co-owner of Nolah Mattress, said. 

“Businesses can support their female employees by proactively creating opportunities for them to communicate their concerns openly,” he said, adding that performance reviews offer a clear opportunity for this. “Companies should add a discussion about gender differences during performance reviews. Doing so empowers female team members to talk about their issues and concerns regularly.”

And for the women who’ve already exited your company, there’s still a chance to hear their feedback, Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, said. 

“I’m reaching out to women who resigned over the past year and am asking them two questions: ‘What were your hopes and dreams when you took this job?’ Followed by, ‘What changed?’” Matuson said. “I then share this information with my clients and include a section I title, ‘In their words,’ where I write verbatim — without revealing names — what they tell me. Clients are often stunned by what they hear, apologetic and ready to take action.”

Going through this exercise has even resulted in some rehires, she added.

“I ask people if they’d consider coming back if what drove them away could be resolved — they often say yes, and give me permission to connect them with the hiring manager,” she said. “Being able to hire people back who have the exact experience you need has significantly helped my clients during these challenging times.” 

— Liv McConnell

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This article originally appeared on Ivy Exec

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