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The SHEcession: Why women are withdrawing from the workforce


There’s an alarming trend – some might even call it a crisis – underway in the U.S. workforce.

It’s the SHEcession, the term used to describe the COVID-19-induced recession in which women have quit their jobs or scaled back their participation in the workforce at rates far higher than men.

The SHEcession threatens to erase the gains women have made toward equal representation at all organizational levels over the last several decades, and its impacts may be felt for years to come.

COVID-19’s impact on women

Through the first few months of 2020, gender equity in the workplace was at a historic high. Women had made slow but steady strides in increasing their representation at all organizational levels. There was much progress to celebrate.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic (and the subsequent SHEcession).

The pandemic upended the lives of employees across the U.S., men and women alike.

  • Everyone faced the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding potential layoffs and furloughs, or cuts in salaries and benefits.
  • Everyone had to adapt to health and safety policies, which could involve new and unfamiliar processes, depending on the business.
  • For many employees, their workplace shifted to home, which blurred the lines between the personal and the professional. Although this created more flexibility for workers, it also resulted in:
    • Longer work hours and always feeling “on”
    • Challenges with multitasking and balancing personal versus work obligations
    • Feelings of isolation

However, during this extended time of abnormality, the impact on women – particularly working mothers and single mothers – has been disproportionately high for a few key reasons:

  1. Women often pull “double shifts.” In addition to their salaried employment, they have another full-time job at home: Cooking meals, housework, raising children or caring for other family members, such as elderly parents. Despite all the other professional progress they’ve made, home and caregiver obligations still tend to fall primarily on women. COVID-19 exacerbated these demands and made it much harder for them to balance with work.
  2. Women lost social supports. When the pandemic shut down schools and daycare centers while also separating grandparents, nannies and other caregivers from families, the support systems upon which women rely in order to participate in the workforce evaporated – literally overnight for some. Women had to care for children and homeschool them while working. For single mothers and female employees who were required to work on-site (e.g., first responders, health care professionals), this situation created even more financial and logistical stress.
  3. Women’s jobs were disproportionately impacted. Female-dominated sectors of the workplace – such as travel, leisure and hospitality, retail, entertainment and childcare – were crushed by the pandemic. As a result, many women lost their jobs or, due to competing demands such as homeschooling and childcare, were forced to retreat from the workforce simply because they were the lower-earning spouse at that point in time.

Thus, throughout the pandemic, women have been more likely to say that they feel:

  • Burned out, exhausted and stressed (among other mental-health issues)
  • Less productive and that their performance in general has suffered
  • Judged more harshly for tending to personal and family obligations while working, and appearing undedicated or distracted
  • Uncomfortable sharing their struggles with colleagues and managers because they want to avoid stigmas associated with having other obligations, such as children
  • Overwhelmed by trying to juggle everything and succeeding at nothing

Yet August and September 2020 appeared to be the real tipping point in the SHEcession. Working parents endured the new status quo through the summer of 2020. However, when it became clear that many schools and daycare centers would continue to be closed for the fall semester and beyond, many women seemed to decide that they just couldn’t do the work-while-teaching routine anymore. In response to the conflicting demands, they left the workforce in droves.

In fact, of the 1.1 million workers who left the workforce between August and September 2020, 865,000 (nearly 80%) of them were women

Other sobering statistics:

  • The NWLC also reports that only 57% of women are participating in the workforce – the lowest figure since 1988.

Why women are vital to the workforce 

If this trend continues, there are no winners. The absence of women in the workforce hurts both women and companies long term – and could have dire economic consequences.

What women risk losing in the SHEcession

For women who step back from the job market for prolonged periods, they’re obviously missing:

  • A salary
  • Benefits
  • All the cost-of-living and merit-based adjustments that raise their salary

But they’re also likely to lose ground with regard to experience or falling out of touch with the latest developments in their profession and industry.

In particular, they’re missing out on the possibilities of promotions.

If and when they do return to the workforce, it’s almost always with a lesser job title and at a lower level of pay.

What companies risk losing in the SHEcession

From the perspective of companies, women bring an incredible amount of value above and beyond productivity.

Companies need diversity in life experiences and perspectives. In fact, there’s a powerful business case for having a diverse workforce, including equal representation of both genders. Research indicates that diverse companies are more innovative, grow faster and perform better financially.

In other words, women in the workplace directly and favorably influence the bottom line. And the more visible women are in positions of influence, the more directly they impact businesses for the better.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, having a diverse management team can lead to a 19% boost in revenue.

In supervisory positions and leadership roles, female workers bring additional value to their employers. In general, women are associated with many positive attributes and sought-after skills that are highly valued in leaders:

  • Empathy and high emotional intelligence
  • Willingness to collaborate
  • Proponents of employee- and family-friendly policies
  • Natural mediators
  • Strong communicators
  • Greater tendency to advocate for other women and for organizational diversity

According to a 2017 research report by the Center for Creative Leadership, having more female employees – again, especially in leadership roles – can even make your business a better place to work.

Higher percentages of women in a workforce have been tied to many positive outcomes:

  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Greater employee engagement and retention
  • More dedication to one’s work and feeling that the work is meaningful
  • Reduced burnout

Furthermore, both male and female employees report that female bosses tend to be more supportive of their staff’s career development.

When given the opportunity, women clearly make great leaders.

And the bottom line? Companies frankly need the talent. Women are half the population. Without them, it’s going to be more challenging for companies to have the necessary numbers of people required for sustained business productivity and growth.

Reversing the SHEcession

With this in mind, what can business leaders do to turn things around and end the SHEcession more quickly?

Organizations of all sizes have an opportunity to reshape the workplace to be more supportive of women (and working parents in general) as well as more responsive to the specific factors that caused anxiety and distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, this could create a more empathetic work environment for all employees going forward.

Some strategies for attracting women back to the workplace and retaining them:

1. Be more flexible.

After COVID-19 and the widespread work-from-home experience, the idea that a job takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a one-hour lunch break, may be obsolete. Of course, some companies will continue operating on-site and focusing on hours and schedules because of the nature of their business.

But for others, might more flexibility be warranted? Could employees take more time off to recharge and tend to personal matters as long as their work gets done by deadline? Could schedules better accommodate working parents and the demands of young children?

Can your company continue remote work? The pandemic proved it can be successful – even more so as schools and daycare centers reopen across the U.S. – and it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. This can help employees to work while being more accessible to their children’s and family’s needs.

Or, perhaps businesses could implement hybrid work schedules in which employees work some days in the office and some days at home, or shorter work weeks.

However, be sure to create policies that protect the work-life balance and confirm basic ground rules for accessibility of team members.

2. Ensure a more sustainable pace of work – and keep lines of communication open.

Are employees’ performance goals realistic in light of their other professional and personal obligations? What all is on their plate? How much is too much?

We’re now more tuned in to colleagues’ personal lives than we have ever been before. Managers should maintain a dialogue with employees about their workload versus other commitments, and determine how tasks and responsibilities can be distributed among teammates to balance their obligations and prevent anyone from getting overwhelmed or burned out.

3. Help financially with childcare.

By now, it should be obvious to company leaders how the availability and quality of childcare impacts the ability of their employees to bring their whole selves to work and be productive, maintain morale and feel they can stay with the company for the long term.

Companies with the financial resources to do so should consider offering subsidies for childcare, or even providing on-site daycare services for children of employees who are too young to enroll in school.

4. Support employees’ health and well-being.

Employees need to be assured that they have a place to go to discuss personal or professional challenges, especially if they feel uncomfortable talking to a manager or fear a stigma associated with acknowledging certain struggles (e.g., being a working parent and unable to balance work with family).

If your organization doesn’t already do so, you should implement an employee assistance program that encourages employees to maintain their physical and mental health and directs them to resources that can help with certain issues.

5. Encourage sponsorship of women in the workplace.

Same as men, women want leadership opportunities.

However, women have typically lagged behind in scoring management positions, starting with the very first step up from entry-level positions to lower-level management. For the minority of women who do break through into management, they’re more likely to say that they feel unsupported or set up for failure, and that they have to prove themselves and be more qualified than their male counterparts.

So make sure that women on the leadership track have an advocate at work. This is someone who can:

  • Find opportunities for them
  • Invite them to key meetings
  • Introduce them to the right people
  • Assign them to more high-profile projects that can stretch their skills and put them under review for promotions
  • Connect women across teams and units to nurture a talent pipeline

To avoid some women being overlooked or left behind, don’t leave these relationships to happen organically as they typically have in the past. Instead, make it a larger and more systemic initiative throughout your organization to maximize the number of women who can be assisted by sponsorship.

6. Provide part-time or contract opportunities to reduce the stigma of employees taking time out.

Despite your company’s efforts to support and retain women, there may be circumstances beyond your control in which they need to retreat from the workplace – at least in part – to tend to personal issues or care for their family or their own well-being. A common example of this is taking extended time off to be with a new baby.

Although dialing back their career for motherhood or family caregiving may be the best decision for individual women in the short term, some women hesitate to do so because they worry about gaps in their resume or harming their career. It’s a valid concern, especially as rapid changes in technology in some fields can render skills and expertise obsolete in just a few years. But hanging on to an unhappy employee doesn’t do them – or your company – any good.

As an alternative to them leaving outright, could you work with employees, in some cases, to create part-time opportunities? This lets you retain a valued employee along with the diversity of your workforce while being flexible and helping employees to stay active, relevant and knowledgeable about developments impacting their profession.

Or, perhaps you could transition former employees who took time out of the workforce back into your company on a trial, contractor basis to assess their current skill set and performance. If employees felt that a re-entry program was a realistic option, the stigma of women temporarily leaving the workforce may be lessened and employee loyalty to your company could grow.

Summing it all up

The SHEcession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on women’s participation in the workforce and has undone many years of hard-fought progress toward achieving equal representation at all organizational levels. Women have opted to leave their jobs or scale back their job responsibilities at far higher rates than men.

This development verges on a crisis for companies, because women bring tremendous value to the workplace, including much-needed diversity and highly sought-after skills. To reverse this trend and retain female employees and leaders, companies must become more attuned to the needs of women and working parents, and implement more employee- and family-friendly policies.

To learn more about creating a supportive, inclusive environment that works well for all employees and, in turn, drives better business performance, download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.