Here’s some good news: women are back at work.
Nearly three years after the pandemic drove them out by the millions (13.6 million, to be exact), they’re returning in droves. It’s especially heartening in less traditionally women-centric fields such as manufacturing, where Bloomberg reports that women’s numbers are rising to levels not seen in 20 years.
Still, one has to wonder if the progress can last.
That’s not mere pessimism. Government data shows women’s workforce progress has a history of ebbs and flows. The sticking point is often motherhood, when related conflicts — no child care, default parenthood, glass ceilings — push women out. Even now as women gain ground, mothers continue to fall behind, with the Center for American Progress reporting both disproportionately depressed job prospects for mothers of the youngest children, and persistent (and huge) gaps between the number of mothers and fathers who work.
Those exits come with big costs. Looming labor shortages and skills gaps have industries like manufacturing and STEM fields badly in need of more women in C-suite roles — more women in general — to keep up. For them, initiatives like balanced gender representation, writes Deloitte, “are likely to expand the available talent pool.” No wonder leaders in those fields are looking to cement women’s prospects today and improve their perception of such fields as a career. But to make real headway, these workplaces have to continue pushing back on both the stubborn philosophical barriers that make women question careers, and the tangible barriers that make those careers impossible.
And that will require companies to be purposeful in a few key areas.
Recognize women as a competitive edge.
Women and diverse talent are a recognized antidote to staving off industry talent shortages. But the goal to recruit them should be looked at as more than just a check in a box. Companies with more women in leadership are known to be more profitable — no surprise since representation ensures ideas and opinions that speak to the entire potential population you hope to recruit, market to, and serve. Companies that are fully representative look at gender equity as an important part of their business proposition, with clear ascension and leadership tracks women can see, emulate, and realize.
Make child care a priority.
Check the reasons women exited the workforce during COVID, and child care comes out on top. For many, that remains a challenge, with dire shortages driving not only whether women come back, but what jobs they choose. It’s difficult in all industries. But it’s most pointed in people-centric fields like manufacturing, where frontline schedules lack flexibility and where child care availability can be the difference between women leaving or staying.
"We recognize caregiving responsibilities are not limited to the youngest of children."— Ayelet Mosaffi Hutson , Director of North America Total Wellbeing and Global Projects, Sanofi
Remember that caregiving doesn’t stop at kindergarten.
Many employers assume that child care challenges end at grade school. That’s debatable since a 5-year-old off from school is no better able to stay home alone than a toddler, and the average school year has a gap of roughly 80 days between the number of days children are not in school yet parents are expected at work. Such concerns are behind pharmaceutical company Sanofi’s decision to provide care and tutoring for older kids, as well as senior care — a nod to another responsibility that can keep women out of the workforce. “We recognize caregiving responsibilities are not limited to the youngest of children,” says the company’s Director of North America Total Wellbeing and Global Projects Ayelet Mosaffi Hutson.
Evaluate your response to parental leave.
What happens when a woman announces a baby? Is there a frown followed by skepticism about whether a mother is really coming back? Or support with a clear path showing how she can go out successfully and come back with her foot still on the gas? The latter speaks volumes. But that requires not only a company-wide action plan, but also training for managers in how to approach it. The commitment will be worth it. “The impact of these types of programs,” WorkParent CEO Daisy Dowling told Senior Executive recently, “is a tremendous sense of employee loyalty. You have to get things right, but when you do, that’s the kind of loyalty you get.”
Vermeer Corporation learned that many of its employees had trouble finding child care within 30 miles of its headquarters. Seeing the need for care, Vermeer leaders took action and created an on-site child care center.
Support men in their caregiver role too.
A man’s ability to pitch in on the home front may seem separate from women’s success metrics at work. But in reality, they are absolutely connected. When men are seen as employees first — if they’re professionally dinged for taking time for families, for example — women become the default parent, thus perpetuating stereotypes that limit women’s careers. Letting men see themselves in work and home roles — featuring them prominently in communications such as in this manufacturing success story — is not just equitable, but ultimately strategic.
Successful women attract more successful women.
Policies that support women have long-term effects. By providing mentors and role models, successful woman at work pave the way for more women to see what’s possible and to follow the path. This will be especially important as talent-challenged manufacturing and STEM fields look to make women a continuing part of their business plan.
Success will require visible mentors and role models who can fortify women’s long-term prospects. And that will require supporting them at every stage of their career.
“When women obtain high-level management positions,” wrote a Harvard Business Review author a few years ago, “they often act as agents of change.” In other words, the more women there are, the more there will be.
Want to Learn More?
Companies like Toyota, Sanofi, and Vermeer partner with Bright Horizons to design and deliver highly effective, flexible, and personalized benefit programs that meet demands in the new world of work. Working Without a Net: The Care Crisis Affecting Employees and How to Solve It is a guide that provides eye-opening examples of care issues as well as benefit options to evaluate for the creation of an employer-based solution.
Join us on October 3 at 2 pm ET for Current Sustainable Workforce Trends to Capitalize On.
Opinions expressed by contributing authors are their own.
Senior Director, Solutions Strategy at Bright Horizons
Alice Lindenauer is a member of Bright Horizons Workforce Consulting team and works with clients on establishing the right form of corporate-sponsored child care to promote engagement, boost productivity, and drive sustained business results.
She previously led the global HR function for Hamilton Lane, a $825B private markets asset manager. As a member of its executive team, Alice was involved in corporate acquisitions, divestitures, joint ventures, regional expansions, and a successful IPO. Alice began her career in the financial analysis and business management areas before shifting into HR leadership when she was asked to reinvent SEI Investment’s HR function, creating the Workforce Development Team.
Almeida, B. A., & Salas-Betsch, I. (2023, February 6). Fact sheet: The State of women in the labor market in 2023. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/fact-sheet-the-state-of-women-in-the-labor-market-in-2023/.
Giffi, C., Huelsman, T., Rodriguez, M. D., & McClelland, K. (2017). (rep.). Women in manufacturing stepping up to make an impact that matters. Deloitte. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/manufacturing/us-manu-women-in-manufacturing.pdf.
Lowe, A. (2022, October 4). "US Women in Manufacturing Jobs Reach New High After Pandemic." BNN Bloomberg. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/us-women-in-manufacturing-jobs-reach-new-high-after-pandemic-1.1827967.
Prusty, A., Poddar, D., & Bhat, R. (2022). (rep.). (R. Thomas, Ed.) Competing for talent: Recasting perceptions of manufacturing. Deloitte. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/audit/us-eri-the-workforce-experience-in-manufacturing-does-manufacturing-need-to-recast-its-image.pdf.
Scarborough, W. (2019, November 22). "What the data says about women in management between 1980 and 2010." Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/02/what-the-data-says-about-women-in-management-between-1980-and-2010.