Vaccinations are available and states are re-opening, but the number of women in the workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic is still at historic lows. As companies begin to return their workers to the office, they should also begin thinking about how to reshape diversity and inclusion efforts in order to attract and retain women workers.
Women began leaving the workforce in alarming numbers almost immediately when states began issuing “stay at home” orders early last year. The U.S. Census reports that between April and March of 2020, approximately 3.5 million mothers with school-age children left active work – either shifting into paid or unpaid leave, losing their job, or exiting the labor market altogether. By October 2020, more than 2 million women overall had left the labor force.
Now in mid-2021, millions of women have yet to return to full-time work. According to the Census, by January 2021, mothers’ active work status was 6.4 percentage points lower than in January 2020.
While a complex mix of factors has contributed to the disproportionate number of women departures from the workforce, studies, such as the McKinsey reports, attribute the disparity to the pressure and stress of women working from home while their children are also attending school from home. However, as schools began to re-open for in-person learning in 2021, women have not quickly returned to work.
Companies that fail to create an inclusive climate which normalizes challenges faced by working mothers may increase exposure to litigation. In Delaney, MaryJo v. Advantage Sales, Ltd., et al, No. 4:20-cv-01644-MWB (M.D.Pa., filed Sept. 11, 2020), a processing manager at a small retail company in central Pennsylvania, sued her former employer claiming that she was forced to resign due to her supervisor’s denial of her request to adjust her work schedule because her 9-year-old son would be home during the day. She alleged that the supervisor was immediately skeptical of her request and accused her of wanting to use the time to access social media. In another case, Wallace, Drisana v. Hub International Insurance Services Inc. et al., No. 37-2020-00019040, Superior Court of California, County of San Diego County, filed June 5, 2020, the mother of two toddlers alleged that she suffered discrimination on the basis of her gender because of disparaging remarks by a supervisor about noise from the plaintiff’s children during conference calls.
As companies seek to improve gender diversity and inclusion in their ranks, they should direct efforts toward both recruiting and retention. Inclusion can refer to a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging. It can be assessed as the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted and encouraged to fully participate in the organization. Creating a more inclusive climate may require fundamental changes to an organization’s culture and organizational character. Fundamental changes may include considerations for working parent support, including flexible schedules where possible and not an undue burden on business needs, and resource or support groups that provide spaces for workers to share, listen and learn from one another.