More than 2 million women have left the labor force amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, with Black and Latina women representing a disproportionately high swath of those who the agency found are neither working nor actively looking for a job as of late last year.
Employment lawyers say this withdrawal from the workplace is bad news not only for women's long-term economic prospects and long-fought efforts to reach an equitable workplace, but it's dangerous for companies as well.
Studies have repeatedly shown that having a diverse workforce is beneficial for an organization, driving efficiency, problem-solving and financial performance. On top of that, employment lawyers say it's risky for a company to stand idly by when women start heading for the door, as a trend of these departures can expose a company to discrimination liability.
"Looking at the sheer numbers of women that are dropping out, there's litigation risk there," said Epstein Becker Green employment partner Tamara Bock. "Plaintiffs' lawyers are going to start looking at this, and saying, 'wow you may have inadvertently made it a difficult place for women to work.'"
While women, especially Black and Latina women, faced significantly more job losses than men last year — in large part because the COVID-19 crisis devastated sectors where women predominate, like retail and hospitality — layoffs are only a piece of the puzzle.
A report from the U.S.-based consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. published late last year found that more than one in four women are considering either downshifting their careers or exiting the workforce completely as a result of the health crisis.
The core drivers behind these considerations were added housework and caregiving responsibilities, a lack of flexibility at work, and a feeling that they need to be constantly available, according to the report.
Employers would be wise to make an effort to alleviate some of these hurdles, experts say. "Companies should think about this and try to prevent it if at all possible, or at least put up some buffers," Bock said.
While the impact of the pandemic on women in the workplace is a daunting problem to solve, here are four tips for company leaders working to ensure the women on their roster have the tools and support they need to keep clocking in.
Evaluate Workers' Output, Not Attendance
In situations where employees are able to work remotely, the strain on women can take different forms, as school closures and lack of child care options may have cluttered their task list during the traditional nine-to-five. As women are more likely to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, they're going to be less able to be glued to their computer for the entire workday.
Though, while supervisors may take it as a bad sign when a worker isn't able to appear in every teleconference, experts say this isn't the best way to fairly evaluate work performance when the pandemic has thrown everyone's schedule out of whack.
"We're learning that there are a lot of really bad managers who can't manage their remote workforce, so they're defaulting to who is on the Zoom calls, who's participating, who's there," said Epstein Becker Green employment partner Susan Gross Sholinsky.
Instead, Sholinsky said taking stock of someone's work product, not their consistent presence in a Zoom tile, could be a better tool for determining whether they're successfully handling their workload. "Focus more on output than being present on a Zoom call at 3 p.m., which may be difficult for a parent," she suggested.
Measuring productivity by this gauge levels the playing field between non-caregivers and those managing their kids' e-learning schedule or caring for an elderly family member, and it can help ensure those with heightened responsibilities at home amid the pandemic aren't being unfairly dinged at work just because they have more on their plate.
"Just thinking about work and productivity in a different way, and training managers in that regard can be a helpful solution," Sholinsky said.
Conduct Exit Interviews and Surveys
Experts say one of the simplest ways for an employer to understand what may be pushing women out the door — and what changes might have kept them on board — is to ask them about their decision to leave in an exit interview, where workers often feel they can be more frank about their experiences than when they were still on the payroll.
"Do outreach to figure out what form of support might keep some of these good employees in the workforce, certainly exit interviews are helpful," said Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP employment partner Susan Kline. "If somebody leaves, find out why."
Another way to gauge employees is through surveys, which Kline said can be "an even more proactive" way to get out ahead of any problem.
They can come in the form of an online form or supervisors carving out a few minutes to check in with each person they oversee. "Good communication is really important," she said.
Consider a Virus Leave Policy
Caregivers who work are facing some of the biggest hurdles during the pandemic, so offering them weeks or months of personal leave is a good option to explore, experts said, especially considering that the federal government's emergency virus leave law expired at the end of last year.
The Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act, which was enacted in March, had offered employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for themselves or family members.
"That benefit was helpful, but it's gone for so many people," Kline said. Employers should see if they could try and put a similar policy in place internally, she said.
She noted that this kind of leave can help "keep people on a larger scale engaged and contributing as best they can." She also said that employers wary of this kind of commitment can install a clear cutoff for any internal leave policy.
"You don't have to make those measures permanent, you can make very clear that they're temporary," Kline said.
Fix the System, Not the Women
In whatever approach employers take, experts said it's crucial they don't put the onus on women to counter the systemic workplace biases and instead address those problems at the source.
"Once you reframe this as not about women making these choices and about structural constraints that are pushing women out, it leads you to a different set of solutions," said gender bias expert Raina Brands.
She said employers need to "really avoid any approaches that try to 'fix the women,'" like, for example, organizing a mentorship program where women are matched up to have one-on-ones on time management.
"That's not going to work," Brands said. "The problem isn't that women don't know how to manage their time, the problem is women have these burdens," she said.
--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper. Editing by Haylee Pearl.
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