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  • Writer's pictureAris Federman

Are We Failing Women When it Comes to the Workplace?

Originally Published in HR Daily Advisor

There’s a massive pool of untapped talent we can no longer afford to ignore, and we should never have ignored them in the first place. Right now, the United States is grappling with a worker shortage, an issue that transcends specific industries, products, or cities. In this sense, the employee shortage is an epidemic, and companies are racing for a vaccine.

We’ve heard every manner of solution thrown at the wall. Wall Street dangles a carrot on a stick—massive salaries—eagerly praying for prospective employees to take a nibble. Amazon touts competitive pay and benefits, offering what it seems to think is meaningful work and purpose. When you call your warehouses “Fulfillment Centers,” you aren’t exactly playing coy.

None of these solutions addresses the main problem: that employees no longer find it meaningful to slave away, sacrificing their time for work that doesn’t seem purposeful. The COVID-19 pandemic made this generation realize just how temporal life is. No carrot on a stick, regardless of size, can resolve such a seismic shift.

There are two ways to tackle this. First, we can change company culture to be a community-oriented, meaningful space. Second, we can stop ignoring the mass of employees who want to return to work but face barriers to entry. Ideally, we should do both of these things. For our purposes, this article will focus on the latter.

During the pandemic, 1.1 million women left the workforce. That accounts for 63% of all lost jobs. Those 1.1 million were fueled by a variety of factors. According to the Pew Research Center, that number climbs past 1.1 million. It reported in June 2020 that 11.5 million women, compared with 9 million men, lost their jobs due to COVID-19—a reversal of historic trends.

Did you know that men are 27% more likely to enter the workforce than women? How about that one-third of working mothers are thinking about quitting? One of the most disturbing statistics is that 51% of mothers say their mental health has actually declined. We have failed to create an inclusive work environment.

While we have declared the pandemic over, many women want to return to work but face unique barriers to entry—for example, motherhood. During the pandemic, child care became a pressing issue. Mothers make up a significant portion of the workforce, with reports from the U.S. Census claiming that 18.5 million women also have school-aged children at home. This is 1.6 million fewer than the year prior. The pandemic presented many women with childcare challenges. Schools moved online. Day cares closed. Fathers left work to care for children, as well, but not nearly in the same metric.

When asked to imagine which parenting partner would be the preferred person to leave the workforce to become their children’s primary caregiver, 69% of women said they would likely be the ones to leave work compared with 31% of males. But now the world has begun to spin again. Schools returned to an in-person format, and day cares opened their doors. Why haven’t these droves of women returned to the workforce?

Child care, for starters. In such an uncertain period (especially financially), people have to prioritize family. Companies should ask themselves if they can aid in soothing the financial burden of child care. That said, the issue goes far deeper than that.

It’s difficult to reintegrate into a work setting after significant time off. This is true of both a COVID and a non-COVID world. Women have to take extended leaves of absence all the time, with motherhood being a prime example. In the time they’re away from the office, the world changes. Office cultures change, and skill sets change. The return to work can be daunting.

That’s why it’s important to extend a hand to these women. While many companies are dangling a carrot on a stick, hoping employees can jump high enough to grasp it, we really must build a bridge back into the office. We can do this via return-to-work programs.

There are programs that have been built and are being built, and these programs can and will vary. However, most resemble internships. They come in the form of paid training periods for potential employees and paid experiences focused on re-equipping employees who left the workforce with the necessary skills for success. The key is to help women who have left the workforce build back confidence, tell their story, and learn and adapt to corporate culture again in a safe manner.

Time will tell which method will solve the labor shortage, but I’m placing my bets on the talented women sitting on the sidelines right now. Let’s let them know how much they’re needed and valued.

Brad Federman is CEO of PerformancePoint LLC.

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