3 Biggest Barriers to Women Reentering the Workforce

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Most everyone was hit hard by the pandemic (except many a tech bro, to be honest), but women were decimated. Female job losses due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times higher than men’s job losses, according to research from the McKinsey Global Institute. As of February 2021, women lost 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic compared with 4.4 million lost by men. Indeed, things have been so bad for working women during the early waves of the pandemic that some called the economic aftermath a “shecession.”

And this isn’t all in the past tense. Rather, it’s not as though the first waves of the pandemic crashed and then women just got up, brushed themselves off and went back to work. Things are still bad. According to a new report from the National Women’s Law Center, more than 1 million men entered the labor force in January, compared to just 39,000 women.  

Why aren’t women joining the workforce in droves, as men are? What is holding them back and how can we — as a society — overcome these barriers? 

Reminder: Barriers Women Face Existed Long Before the Pandemic

“The lack of women re-entering the workplace in a post-COVID economy presents an interesting question,” said Kia Roberts, principal and founder of Triangle Investigations. “Is this cultural phenomenon because of issues that existed within the workplace prior to COVID, or because of workplace conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic? I am of the opinion that it is a combination of both.”

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated workplace pain points that were already problematic before 2020. 

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“Lack of childcare support, indifference to women caring for elderly parents and pay inequities have caused many women to reflect on how they feel about their particular workplace, and if jobs are in line with the lives that they are trying to create for themselves, both personally and professionally,” Roberts said. 

The Widening Gender Pay Gap 

The gender pay gap has been a crucial problem for eons, and the pandemic only worsened it, just as it agitated the already pressing issue of more men holding tech positions than women. Victoria Mendoza, HR and management expert and CEO at MediaPeanut, sees this profoundly in the tech community. 

“The gender pay gap has widened as the number of women in our field has declined during the pandemic,” Mendoza said. “If we look at the statistics, according to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women make up 47% of all working individuals in the United States, yet women only occupy just 25% of computing positions. Asian women account for just 5% of the 25% of women working in technology, while Black and Hispanic women account for 3% and 1%, respectively. All of this is despite the fact that, according to Pew Research Center statistics, the expansion of STEM occupations has surpassed the growth of total employment in the country, expanding 79% since 1990, while overall employment has expanded 34%.”

Lack of Child Care Access

Another barrier is the lack of access to child care.

“During the pandemic when daycare and schools closed overnight, working mothers continued to work their paid jobs while caregiving,” said Vicki Salemi, Monster career expert. “In turn, many women reduced their hours or left their jobs entirely as a result.”

Gender Bias 

Women continue to face gender bias in the labor market, said Andrew Flowers, labor economist at Appcast.

“One pernicious source of gender bias exists in the job search process — job ads with gender-coded words or words associated with gender stereotypes,” he said. “These biased ads may cause female candidates to not apply.”

A Very American Situation 

These barriers are tall and mighty, and ultimately very American. 

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“In comparison to other countries, American women are standing alone,” said Leanne Meyer, founder of Carnegie Mellon Women’s Executive Leadership Academy and author of “Climbing the Spiral Staircase: How Women Can Navigate their Careers and Accelerate Success.” “In other countries, the message behind public policies is that women are valued, their contribution is important and they need to be part of the economy. Social programs are created to communally look after everyone so that women and working parents can actively participate in that economy.”

“The U.S used to lead globally when it came to female labor force participation; we no longer do.” she continued. “This is the impact of no social safety nets, of a society that sees having children and participation in the economy as individual choices. As a result, each woman must figure it out for herself.”

What Employers Can Do To Help 

While the onus is, as usual, on women to navigate this mess, there are moves employers can make to help defeat these barriers, or at least show they’re sensitive to them. Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of TalentTrust, shared some ideas: 

  • Listen to women’s needs and explore the perceived barriers with the intention of trying to overcome them.
  • Embrace the hybrid work model if the role allows it.
  • Be flexible; all workers crave flexibility right now — especially women who usually are the ones who have to pivot if something happens in the home.
  • Create a community and working environment where women feel safe.
  • Remember all your employees are human beings. Create a relationship where they can trust you and you can trust them.
  • Check in regularly on what they need, and have empathy for the changing dynamics of the work environment and their home.
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