Health crises have social and economic tolls — and over the past year, women and working mothers paid a heavy price. 

According to a Boston Consulting Group survey, the time parents spent on education and household tasks increased from 30 to 59 hours per week during the pandemic. Mothers shouldered the bulk of that increase, and many had to withdraw from the workforce to accommodate childcare, homeschooling, and other caregiving needs. 

In total, an estimated 3 million women withdrew from the US workforce due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s quadruple the number of men who were affected. We’ll address the costs, why they matter, and how employers can build workplaces where women and working mothers can thrive. 

Breaking down the costs

“The pandemic disproportionately impacted women in the workplace and, in particular, women of color. The result has been that women's labor participation rate dropped to the lowest it has been in decades,” said Candance Chow, co-founder of NextGroup LLC, a diverse talent placement firm and professional community for women.

Even amid a modest economic recovery, unemployment among Black women continues to increase. Women of color disproportionately account for single, working mothers in the US — and the childcare and caregiving needs during the pandemic forced many to cut hours or step back from the workforce entirely. Last month, a Maven and webinar broke down the staggering economic impact of the “She-cession” on the New York City economy alone:

  • Up to 375,000 city parents may have gone from full to part-time work, taken a less demanding position, or left the workforce altogether. 
  • Parents downshifting their careers could cost the city $2.2 billion per year in tax revenue.
  • New York City’s economy could lose out on $18.5 billion in disposable income spending power.

“Ongoing uncertainties around child care are giving women pause before they take the plunge back into formal work settings,” Chow said. “They’re forced to decide whether employment is, quite frankly, worth risking their health or their families’ stability.” 

Why it matters to private businesses

Women account for half of the eligible workforce. When they have to reduce hours or withdraw entirely businesses across all sectors are hurt. For example, replacing just one employee costs businesses up to 213% of that individual’s salary. Conversely, Maven and Best Places to Work research shows that companies that invest in working mothers have over five times higher revenue growth. Organizations led by gender-diverse boards are also 28% more likely to outperform their peers financially.

“Simply, the pent-up demand for services and economic opportunity can’t be delivered on if employers can't hire and retain women,” Chow said. One analysis found that increasing the share of women in the labor force by just 4% would have an enormous impact on the US economy, increasing GDP by 3.5% and generating an additional $600 billion of activity.

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The way forward

1. Make flexibility a reality, not a buzzword.

COVID-19 forced businesses to re-evaluate workplace norms and policies. While the pandemic’s worst days appear to be behind us, organizations need to consider what emergency measures become standard practice. Flexibility might have been top of mind last year, but it should still be paramount moving forward — not just to attract working parents back into the workforce but to stay competitive. 

“We’ve seen women leave jobs because their employers are asking them to return to the office 100% of the time. Women have learned that the hybrid model makes the most sense for them and their lives,” Chow said. Starting now, organizations need to view flexibility as more than just a corporate buzzword, and instead as something with leadership buy-in.

“HR teams and hiring managers must think creatively about how they structure work not just during the pandemic, but on an ongoing basis,” she said. Beyond basics like flexible hours and remote work, Chow cited job sharing, contract-to-hire opportunities, and returnships as just some of the flexible offerings meant to make it easier for working mothers to return to the workforce. 

2. Invest in holistic family benefits.

Covering fertility treatments, childcare, and pediatrics isn’t just doing right by your people, it’s critical to getting mothers (and future mothers) back into the workforce. Unfortunately, these benefits are often inaccessible due to high costs, limited availability, and inadequate benefits from their employers. Employer-sponsored childcare benefits have always started and ended with leave. But your employees need benefits beyond table stakes (or legally required) offerings like paid parental leave. Holistic family benefits address the entire parenting journey — from preconception to postpartum needs.

“Let me be straight with you: If you’re a business leader concerned about the effects of remote work on your company culture and eager for a return to business as usual, you need to be thinking about childcare benefits,” said Kate Ryder, CEO of Maven at a recent webinar. She suggested that companies go beyond parental leave and adopt strategies that meet the diverse needs of parents, wherever they are. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to family benefits.

3. Seek public-private solutions

Employers can go a long way in bringing women back into the workforce with a more holistic, thoughtful approach to childcare benefits. But they don’t have to do it without government support and collaboration. Liat Krawczyk, who leads New York City’s Childcare Innovation Lab, is focused on re-framing childcare benefits as a core economic and infrastructural issue rather than a family matter. 

“Imagine what our city's economy could look like if we supported a more comprehensive childcare system where families wouldn't have to worry about affording care for their infants, how to piece together care for their night shifts or how they will get through summer vacation and school breaks,” Krawcyzk said.

Her organization, formed last month, will partner with government agencies and private businesses to make policy recommendations on workplace flexibility, childcare subsidies, and other areas critical to bringing mothers back to work. It could serve as a model for other cities looking to expand access to affordable childcare.

Companies that invest in women in the workplace by offering more holistic, inclusive benefits reap the rewards in productivity and set themselves apart as great places to work.

Maven’s virtual clinic has diverse, global providers covering more than 30 specialties and is committed to providing whole-person care across the entire parenting journey — from fertility and surrogacy support to postpartum counseling and pediatrics.

To learn how we can help you build a holistic family benefits plan tailored to your distributed employees’ needs, schedule a demo today.

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