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The education solution: Address gender barriers as an employer

Women, especially working mothers, have borne the worst of the pandemic’s economic effects. One way for employers to survive the Big Quit is to focus on making it easier for women to return to work. And you should look to the education sector for inspiration.

Olivia Jones

Olivia Jones

Let’s start: We’re now living in a candidate’s market, where qualified individuals can essentially set their terms and salary. But even being accommodating to individual candidates’ requests may not be enough for some teams looking to fill many open positions.

Hiring managers need to get creative to solve this staffing problem. By doing so, they can solve today’s crisis and address lingering, systemic inequalities in our employment system.

Look to women to solve the hiring crisis

Women are an undertapped resource for hiring teams

Women have overwhelmingly borne the worst of the economic and occupational impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only worsened existing structural inequalities. Hiring teams have a unique opportunity to tap into this group, which has been largely overlooked as a potential solution to ongoing staffing difficulties. Companies that address barriers to female success at work can take advantage of all they have to offer.

The unique social and economic burdens on women

Women have been economically oppressed for centuries. Only in the last hundred years have women’s rights truly begun to expand: to education and literacy, work, and voting rights. Even when women’s rights began to expand, women of color faced barriers to equality. The effects of these historical inequalities are, in many ways, still felt today:

Under U.S. federal law, women have the right to 12 unpaid weeks of maternity leave, but paid maternity leave varies drastically by employer. Poor labor provisions for new mothers as well as the exorbitant cost of daycare for young children lead many new mothers to exit the workforce completely, often for years at a time.

Working mothers must balance their full- or part-time work with taking care of children and the unpaid labor involved in running a household. Women spend between two and ten times more time on unpaid labor than men.

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The economic impact of the pandemic

These were the factors at play when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020. The effects the pandemic has had on gender equality at work are downright chilling. Women’s labor force participation rate, meaning the percentage of adult women who choose to work, fell to an astonishing 55.8%. The last time the number was this low? 1987.

As school went virtual for much of the country, working mothers were put in an impossible bind: find a way to guide their children through virtual school while somehow still working full-time, or quit their jobs. Many chose to leave work, finding maintaining the balance impossible.

Our research found that American women are more than twice as likely than men to cite family duties as the reason they’re not working. In the U.K., women are more than six times (41.7%) as likely as men (6.7%) to say that family priorities keep them from working.

Women lost 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic, compared to 4.4 million for men. This is largely due to so-called ‘pink-collar jobs’; women hold many of the low-wage positions in the United States. In fact, in 2018, 46% of working women were employed in low-wage jobs. A quarter (25%) of working women are mothers of a child under the age of 14, but many of those women struggle to find affordable childcare, with childcare for toddlers averaging $900 per child per month. To learn more about the ways the pandemic is affecting working women, check out our article and infographic.

Jump to the full infographic – or download it for yourself here.

Women as an undertapped resource

This much is certain: our economy is not making use of women’s labor the way it could, and when it does, women are not fairly compensated for their work, experience, and education. The pandemic has worsened existing disparities along racial and gender lines, and hiring professionals in general seem to be overlooking the under- and unemployment of women as an opportunity for recruitment.

But simply recognizing the way that women have been unfairly impacted by the tumultuous work conditions of the pandemic is not enough to execute a solution to ongoing staffing issues. The largest barrier, perhaps, is the fact that for many of the nearly three million women who have left the workforce over the last year, they have no intention to return to the workforce anytime soon.

Even among women who are still employed, a survey from Deloitte found that 60% are planning to leave their jobs in the next two years.

Why? Lack of work-life balance was the number one cited reason that women are planning to leave their jobs.

In order to hire women, companies are going to have to incentivize them to return to work. What will it take to get women to consider rejoining the workforce? Let’s discuss some of the benefits you can offer women to encourage them to join your organization.

1. Part-time work

Many new moms would like to continue working after they have their child, but are faced with an impossible choice: stay home and quit altogether, or return full-time and find a way to afford full-time childcare. Part-time work continues to carry a stigma in the corporate world – and without good reason, because it is actually a potential solution to staffing problems and gendered workplace inequality.

Our survey found that women are more than twice as likely to say they’re currently working part-time than men. If you can’t find candidates to fill your full-time position, consider switching it to a part-time position instead.

2. Flexible and/or remote work

Allowing your employees to work on a flexible schedule can make work far more accessible for working mothers. Consider, for example, the typical 9-5 work day. For parents with children in school, their workday ends after school (with school days typically ending between 2 and 4:30). This can put parents, especially single parents, in a bind. In fact, 44% of women we surveyed said that work flexibility would attract them to a new opportunity, as opposed to just 31.6% of men.

Similarly, 39.7% said they like remote work because it makes it easier to integrate personal and professional priorities. Remote work can be a better option for women who have long been excluded from the workforce due to competing priorities.

3. Salary

Women are motivated by salary and benefits just as men are. In our survey, men were slightly more likely (67.3%) to say that salary attracts them to a new opportunity than women (61.8%).

That being said, consider the cost of child care and the gender wage gap when thinking about salary in the context of employing women and working mothers.

4. Child-care benefits

How can your organization support working parents? Work-life integration is one of the top priorities for working mothers, so to hire women, you’re going to have to show concrete proof that your culture is supportive.

One way to do this could be through offering child-care benefits, such as company or subsidized child-care, or credits for employees with children in child care.

5. Parental leave programs

Do you offer parental leave? How generous is your parental leave program? Generous parental leave shows your employees that you support gender equality.

Why? Because having a child is physically taxing, and inadequate parental leave dismisses the physical and emotional recovery that parents go through following the birth of a child.

With childbirth, household duties, and childcare falling unequally on women, parental leave is one way to balance the scales.

Case study: Working mothers in education

To explore other ways your organization can hire and retain women and working mothers, let’s look at a sector that employs women at one of the highest rates: education.

Nearly nine out of 10 (87%) of primary school teachers in the U.S. are women, according to the World Bank. Teaching is the second-most common profession for American women, after nursing. Women are twice as likely as men to be teachers.

We also know that, overall, one-third of full-time workers care for a child under the age of 18. Compare this to the fact that 48% of teachers have at least one child to care for, and we see that there are more working mothers in education than other professions.

Why are so many teachers women?

There are many factors to consider here. The history of women as teachers may play a role, as might be the fact that women hold more jobs in less traditionally prestigious professions like education.

Some would point to the caregiving and nurturing aspects of teaching as reasons that the profession attracts a high number of female employees.

But perhaps the most compelling theory is that the profession simply fits better structurally with the life of the working mother. Here are a few ways that education sector policy lines up with working parents’ priorities.

1. School schedules

For working parents, corporate schedules that demand presence in an office from 9-5 make it challenging to care for children. Even if the children are school-aged, most school days end between 2 and 4:30 p.m. This leaves working parents scrambling to coordinate expensive daycare or babysitters.

For mothers who work as teachers, their schedules align far more closely with children who are school-aged. In addition to making pick-up and drop-off easier, if a parent works in the same school district where their child goes to school, they share the same school holidays and break schedules. Working mothers are able to care for their children full-time at home during the summer holiday.

2. Parental leave policies

School district policy on parental leave varies dramatically by geographical location. In North Carolina, for example, new parents are entitled to up to a year of unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. This is far more generous than the 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave guaranteed by federal law.

This is just one example, though, and certainly many parents can’t afford to take an unpaid year off of work following the birth of a child.

Some teachers use school schedules to time their pregnancies with summer break to get the most possible time with new children under a system that doesn’t meet their needs.

3. Benefits

Public school teachers, as government employees, generally have access to decent benefits, a must for any working parent. While teachers are underpaid, most school districts offer robust healthcare options and even pensions.

With education offering little prestige and no promise of wealth, the number of educated women choosing to pursue this career path speaks to the other advantages it offers. Organizations looking to bring working mothers back into the workforce can learn from the opportunities and pitfalls of one of the most common professions for women.

Educate your business – in more ways than one

Your company can contribute to ending decades of gendered economic inequality by making your organization a haven for working moms. But in order to get women to return to the workforce, you have to fix what’s broken and address their needs. Shift to align your priorities with working women and you’ll gain the benefit of them as an untapped staffing resource.

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