The Challenge of Bringing Women Back to the Workforce

By Lawrence Leisure
September 1, 2021

Faced with a deadly pandemic, dwindling job prospects, and increased responsibilities at home, thousands of women have fled the workforce since the outbreak began, many with no intention of ever returning. That has in turn put businesses in a bind: How do you bring them back? How do you give them the support they need, in terms of caregiving and healthcare, that will enable them to achieve the work-life balance they so desperately seek?

It is estimated that there are now at least 1.8 million fewer women in the workforce than was the case in the early stages of 2020, though some estimates run as high as three million. More specifically, the percentage of women 20 and older who are presently working has sunk from 59.2 percent to 57.5 percent, the lowest it has been in over three decades. Moreover, almost 25 percent have no plans of ever returning to their jobs, and all indications are that this mass exodus is far from over. Some 57 percent of women — and nearly 60 percent of women of color — said they plan to depart their jobs within the next two years.

Many women who have left the workforce have done so because they have seen a marked increase in their childcare responsibilities — “still largely perceived as a female function,” as one observer noted —  in the face of the school and/or daycare closures. Consider a study of over 1,500 U.S. women who described themselves as the primary caregiver to children under the age of 18. Just 31 percent of them said they intended to re-enter the working world over the next year, meaning 69 percent are planning to remain at home. 

As a result, women, who constitute 51 percent of the U.S. population, now comprise 47 percent of the workforce. And not all of them are happy, as evidenced by the fact that job satisfaction has sunk below 50 percent.

The cost of this migration is steep. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco noted in a January 2021 report that in 2019, some $500 billion more would have been added to the U.S. GDP, had the workforce been gender-balanced. A University of Akron economist dug even deeper, concluding that a bump of 10 percent in the number of working women results in a five percent hike in all workers’ wages.

Beyond sheer profitability, gender balance leads to increased creativity and innovation within an organization, according to experts. 

What can be done, then, to keep women in the workforce? There have been proposals on the part of President Joe Biden calling for universal pre-kindergarten and a national family and medical leave program, though many lawmakers have blanched at the $650 billion price tag. Additionally, the women’s advocacy group Time’s Up has created The Care Economy Business Council, which calls upon businesses to make a commitment to workers’ caregiving. So far some 200 companies, including Google, McDonald’s, and JP Morgan Chase & Co., have signed on.

But a large share of the onus falls on individual companies. To that end, they have shown increased interest in providing solutions to help their employees deal with caregiving responsibilities. Moreover, there has been an increased push toward providing more women’s health offerings, particularly for lower-income female workers whose plans might not support them in a meaningful way, or who might not have access to adequate care.

CPF is among the many organizations supporting the development of solutions for those who fall into this economic category. In all, private equity and venture capital investments in the healthcare sector increased to $79 billion in 2019 alone, nearly five times the amount of investment there had been a decade earlier. There has been particular interest in the female-led healthcare enterprises, which have the dual benefit of providing jobs for women — they fill eight of every 10 positions in the sector — and ensuring better outcomes. Within that there is a movement toward greater investment in femtech (i.e., technology that supports women’s health); that is expected to be a $60 billion market by 2026.

The bottom line is that dramatic as the job losses among women have been, that trend can be reversed. It must be, given the many benefits. It will take investment, yes, but more than that it will take imagination on the part of businesses that must satisfy women’s ever-expanding needs.