Women's History Month Part 2Women's History Month Part 2

Employers can make a difference in women’s work and personal lives

Women have left the workforce in record numbers — here are some strategies to get them back.

Women have made enormous strides since they entered the American workplace en masse in the 1960s. Women have smashed sexist stereotypes that say they can’t perform as well as men in the professional world. 

But fast forward to 2022 and it’s clear that external factors continue to hold women back from reaching their greatest potential. This was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the progress women have made in the workforce, with almost 1.1 million women dropping out completely. While men left their jobs during the pandemic too, they’ve since recovered these job losses.  

What can you as an employer do to lessen the many stressors women endure and, in turn, help them excel at their jobs and lead healthier lives? Below we discuss a few key strategies.

But fast forward to 2022 and it’s clear that external factors continue to hold women back from reaching their greatest potential. 

Workplace expectations

The expectations placed on women to shoulder the majority of the emotional, cognitive, and physical labor for a household, also often follows them into the workplace. Many women experience being expected to fulfill gendered roles, like being a nurturing manager, or being “easy going” at work, or taking on additional unpaid work. These expectations bring light to the fact that the workplace wasn’t originally designed for women and in many cases still hasn’t updated its norms and culture to accommodate women.  

We no longer exist in the America where men alone shoulder the financial duties and women take on the domestic obligations. Most women have to work to support their families. They don’t have a choice. In fact, one study revealed that around 70% of U.S. mothers are the primary breadwinners in their families for at least one year before their child turns 18. And moms spend an average of six years in this role.  

We no longer exist in the America where men alone shoulder the financial duties and women take on the domestic obligations.

The true cost of child care 

Let’s start with the elephant in the room — childcare. Despite progress for women’s equality, women still largely uphold the child rearing duties. In fact, according to the United States Census Bureau, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men to stop working so they can take care of their kids. And as we’ve learned during the pandemic, it can be impossible to get work done with children doing remote schooling or babies crying in the background.     

Child care’s cost is also a crucial factor. As anyone who’s had a baby in the U.S. knows, paying for child care is expensive. Parents spend an average of $10,174 on child care annually. That’s more than 10% of the median income for married couples and more than 35% of the median income for single parents. Some women throw up their hands in frustration and quit their jobs when they realize most of what they’re earning is just going toward child care. 

In fact, according to the United States Census Bureau, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men to stop working so they can take care of their kids.

But paying for child care isn’t the only challenge. Finding it in the first place can be impossible too, especially given that almost 16,000 childcare providers closed during the pandemic. This represents a 9% decrease in child care and daycares across the country and contributes to child care deserts (zero child care providers or three kids to one licensed child care provider) which were already a glaring problem before COVID.  

Where is the paid parental leave?

The lack of paid parental leave is also a glaring problem, especially since the U.S. is the only industrialized country to not offer it. Without guaranteed parental leave, many would-be parents might be dissuaded from having kids, and those who already have children can be rushed back to work before they’re actually ready. Even more striking is how an absence of leave can damage babies’ neurological development

Employers can make child care more affordable for their employees to lessen these stressors. This can include raising women’s pay, adding childcare benefits like vouchers and adequate paid parental leave, and including onsite childcare so parents can save valuable travel time.

Flexible working hours

Flexible working hours — if possible — should also be the status quo. Women sometimes have to work outside the standard working day to accommodate the needs of their families. If their workplace mandates that the workday ends at 6 p.m., then many parents lose out on the ability to work when their children are asleep or less active. 

If their workplace mandates that the workday ends at 6 p.m., then many parents lose out on the ability to work when their children are asleep or less active.

Hand-in-hand with flexible hours, employers can foster a workplace that welcomes working mothers and doesn’t make women fearful that they’ll lose their jobs if they want to have children. Often, women in the workplace worry how their bosses and colleagues will perceive them if they have to take time off work to take care of their kids. Encouraging a culture with accommodating resources and lessening the stigma that working mothers face goes a long way toward attracting stellar employees and, more importantly, keeping them.

Women’s mental health

In part due to the unique stressors they face, women are more likely to suffer from the most common mental health conditions, including insomnia, anxiety, and depression. If employers understand this, that can enable them to realize women are a group of employees that have a higher need for — and utilization of — mental health services. 

Reaching out to women in your company in a way that feels relevant and inclusive can help guide your employees most in need to their available care options and how to use these resources. 

Ask women what they need

Asking women what benefits and accommodations they need, while potentially an  intimidating process (especially for a large company), can cut through the guesswork of what resources are best to offer. When employee feedback is examined and properly implemented, employees and the company can benefit from greater uptake of mental health service and, consequently, a healthier workforce. Working with employee resource group (ERG) leaders who represent women and other marginalized employees is a crucial step towards identifying the needs, preferences and barriers to mental health treatment.   

Working with employee resource group (ERG) leaders who represent women and other marginalized employees is a crucial step towards identifying the needs, preferences and barriers to mental health treatment.   

Ultimately, companies must reevaluate the systems and policies they have in place that chip away at women’s ability to balance work, family, and health. Sometimes, overhauling those systems is necessary to change the organizational culture of a company so it can truly welcome and retain women from all backgrounds. While it can be a tough process, what’s more difficult is watching women drop out of the workforce in record numbers and losing out on their invaluable skills and insights.


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About the Author

Juliette McClendon, Ph.D.

Juliette McClendon, Ph.D.

Director of Medical Affairs, Licensed Psychologist

Dr. McClendon is the Director of Medical Affairs at Big Health. She is a clinical psychologist by training; her work emphasizes evidence-based practice, culturally responsive care, and mental health equity. She received her PhD in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in Psychology from Harvard University. She completed her post-doctoral training at VA Boston as an Advanced Women’s Health Fellow. Dr. McClendon studies the impact of stress on racial/ethnic disparities in health. Dr. McClendon has over a dozen peer-reviewed research articles focusing on the impact of stress on health disparities, the impact of racism and discrimination on mental health, and identifying intervention approaches that can mitigate the impact of racism and discrimination on health.

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