Opinion: Women are leaving the workforce at a disturbing rate — here’s what leaders can


Remote learning and the widespread closure of care facilities have forced many parents to choose between their jobs and domestic responsibilities. More often than not, the parent who has chosen to walk away from work is female.

A March 2021 U.S. Census Bureau population survey found that 80% of those who left the workforce since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020 were women, while a recent McKinsey study confirmed that one in four women have seriously considered taking a step back from their careers in the past 12 months.

But this exodus is not just an unfortunate and inevitable result of pandemic stressors. Corporate culture has long rewarded those who answer emails 24/7, show up for early morning meetings and stay late over those whose personal commitments or at-home responsibilities prevent them from doing so. While new, post-COVID workplace policies may tout flexibility, they mean nothing if they aren’t reinforced by workplace norms.

Rewarding talent and performance over things like round-the-clock availability is a solid management approach that many companies already claim to practice. In reality, a person performing with passion in the confines of more limited hours may not be rewarded as much as someone who can clear their calendar at a moment’s notice. 

This bias, which I have observed throughout my career as a corporate executive and change management consultant, is attributable to both a deeply ingrained company culture and the example leaders set. Course-correcting these two factors is crucial to not only retaining female talent, but also to fostering a healthy work environment for everyone. The following four guidelines can help leaders achieve this:

1. Lead with intention and pave the way: Every company has a culture, but it is up to leaders to intentionally foster inclusive and supportive company-wide values; otherwise behavior consistent with the opposite values may continue to go unchecked.

Culture is ultimately defined by what leaders allow. Is it all right to be offline during dinner hours? Do you respect mental health and encourage employees to take time off? Are employees expected to work over the weekend? While all of these questions are likely addressed in office policies, their reality in the workplace is driven by company culture. What the corporate handbook states and what is reasonably tolerated (or conversely applauded) may be vastly different. Culture can easily reinforce an undesired value.

For example, “flexibility” has become a popular catchphrase during this work-from-home era. Many companies have loosened the boundaries of working hours to allow time for homeschooling and other family responsibilities. But in many cases, flexibility only goes as far as company culture allows. Establishing a policy and reinforcing it are two disparate tasks. Leaders who are intentional about company culture will first establish the policy, then model the behavior they want to see and reward those who do the same. This might mean declining invitations to 6 p.m. meetings that coincide with family dinners or waiting to respond to weekend emails until Monday. Here is where leading by example — and with intention — matters most.

2. Engage many, many people in fostering company culture: Finding the gaps between policy and practice can be challenging for senior executives who may have limited visibility into their company’s day-to-day operations. Without being in the trenches, it’s hard to know whether people are feeling pressured to deliver for a boss or conform to a certain expectation in pursuit of promotions or career advancement. Digging beneath the surface of everyday appearances is essential to getting a clear picture of office dynamics.

Doing so requires enlisting everyone from entry-level hires to high-level managers in a cultural crusade against company practices that may be putting women at a disadvantage. Change can be hard, and it rarely happens at the behest of just one person, no matter how influential they may be. Real cultural shifts begin when leaders empower those below them to accelerate change by implementing diverse ideas and collecting feedback from all levels.

Leaders often appeal to the “head,” or our sense of logical and strategic reasoning, before they engage the “heart,” or the emotional side of problem solving. Yet successful leaders use both head and heart to their advantage by offering intelligent solutions in an empathetic package. This approach is also the secret to recruiting a volunteer army of employees who are intrinsically motivated by their company’s values and feel part of a larger team. You will solve more problems faster by involving as many people as possible.

3. This is not HR’s job alone: Ironically, the only way to involve as many people as possible is to have a workforce that feels valued enough to voluntarily make changes. People who stay with a company year after year do not stick around just for the paycheck, but also because the position is personally fulfilling and offers growth opportunities.

Yet if those growth opportunities are only available to those who fit one mold, there is little incentive for equally talented employees with different styles and personal constraints to stay. Leaders then can quickly find themselves with a concerning lack of diversity. This is a serious problem not only due to the cultural implications of having less diversity, but also because multiple studies have shown that teams with a significant female executive presence drive higher revenues, increase client satisfaction rates and support better performance overall.

Employee retention and recruitment are typically considered the domain of the human resources department, but the work of maintaining an inclusive culture impacts everyone. Office dynamics have as much to do with fostering a diverse, well-balanced workplace as does finding the right people to fill positions. Signing on a new employee from outside the organization with a healthy attitude and ideal values won’t change company culture, nor will an employee resource group (ERG) alone. Instead, company culture must change from within in order to attract and hold onto a successful, as well as diverse, array of hires.

4. Encourage mentorship and even sponsorship: Researchers predict that it will take women two more years than men to recover professionally from the pandemic. As schools resume in-person teaching and other services open their doors, we can expect many women to seek employment once again. Those who stepped away may have to start several levels below where they once were or, at the least, play catch-up with colleagues who never left. The recovery curve for these women is steep.

Sponsorship and visibility — especially from male leaders who have an opportunity to serve as advocates for female reentrants to the workforce — can help women make up for lost time. Creating additional opportunities for engagement throughout the company to allow returning employees to show what they can offer is also a beneficial practice. Supporting these programs should be part of a well-defined company culture that values talent and hard work as much as availability. 

Leaders have a chance to re-evaluate cultural dynamics and rebuild their team with a diverse set of employees who will drive better outcomes for their organizations. Embracing change and leveraging these four guidelines is the first step forward.

Kathy Gersch is chief commercial officer at strategy execution and change management firm Kotter. The firm’s new book, Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times (Wiley, 2021), expands upon many of the themes Gersch writes about. She can be reached at kathy.gersch@kotterinc.com.

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