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Topic: women at work

Why women aren’t returning to the workplace 


7 minute read

By Chloe Mumford

Following the global pandemic that caused a major shift in the workforce, women have started to leave the workforce in hordes. Now, nearly two million fewer women are working compared to pre-pandemic figures.   

This leads us to the question: why are women not returning to work? But there isn’t a single answer to this seemingly simple question. There are many reasons why women are choosing not to rejoin the workforce. So, let’s dive deeper into it 

Why women leave

Firstly, we need to get to the root of why women decided to leave in the first place. This couldn’t have been an easy decision, particularly as it was during the pandemic when finances were especially tough for many. However, some didn’t have much of a choice.  

During the pandemic, most childcare centres and schools closed down, leaving many families with no way of finding childcare arrangements. Instead, they had to make a very difficult choice; one parent must stay home to take over the childcare responsibilities, which now included home-schooling.  Due to reasons such as childcare still being considered the major responsibility of mothers and women on average earning less than their male partners, it was women who were most under pressure to leave employment.  

A report by Deloitte found that 4 in 10 women express a sense of obligation to prioritise their partners’ careers before their own. This goes even for women who are the primary earners. 

In the current post-pandemic era, nearly 60% of parents cite a lack of childcare as their reason for leaving the workforce. So, while childcare centres have reopened, parents are still struggling with this issue 

Burnout was also a significant challenge for women, which undoubtedly contributed to many of them leaving the workforce. In a study, McKinsey & Company found that 1 in 4 women considered leaving or changing careers due to burnout in 2020, in 2021 it rose to 1 in 3. Burnout is something that organisations do not address enough, and that needs to change to prevent more women from leaving. 

The effects of menopause

Many women have opened up about leaving their jobs due to menopause, which currently up to 20% of the U.S. workforce is affected by.

A study conducted by Fast Company found that 17% of respondents have quit a job or considered quitting due to menopause symptoms. 87% of women undergoing menopause admit that they don’t feel supported or want to discuss their menopause with their employer/manager, citing reasons such as fear of discrimination and putting their careers at risk. This leads to struggling with symptoms in silence and, for many, quitting altogether.

Issues with finding flexibility 

The pandemic caused a shift in the workforce, for better or worse, depending on who you speak to. One of the biggest trends that causes a shift in opinions is flexible working. As people got used to working from home, spending more time with their children, and prioritising mental health, flexible/hybrid working became increasingly desirable. 

This is particularly clear in the female workforce. A report by MetLife revealed that 78% of women say they need more flexibility to return to back to work. 

One company advancing their flexible working agenda is Zen Media. “We are huge proponents of a flexible schedule and believe that parents shouldn’t have to miss out on big moments with their kids as they work from home. Sure, the work still needs to get done, but we’ve found that prioritising flexibility and remote work makes our employees happier and our company more productive.” Their success story demonstrates that providing flexibility is a win-win for both companies and their workers. If an organisation isn’t willing to rethink its stance on flexible/remote working, they could be missing out on top talent. 

The motherhood penalty

The motherhood penalty is a term coined by Michelle Budig and Paula England in their 2001 study, “The Wage Penalty for Motherhood.”  Studies reveal that mothers suffer severe wage and hiring disadvantages in the workplace.  

The Center for American Progress reports that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 41% of American households with children. But the reality is that hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers than women without children, as presented in a study by Christine Siegwarth Meyer, Swati Mukerjee, and Ann Sestero. Additionally, when employers do make an offer to a mother, statistics show that they often offer a lower salary than the salary of a childless woman.  

The prevailing bias of many hiring managers against hiring or fairly compensating women with children is without doubt preventing a large group of women from rejoining the workforce.

Contrastingly and absurdly, while mothers are greatly affected by the motherhood penalty, it’s the opposite for fathers. In fact, it can even work in their favour.  Research into the “fatherhood bonus” demonstrates that fathers are more likely to get a pay increase. 

The Gender Promotion Gap

Gender bias in the workplace is an unfortunate reality. A study by Lean In and McKinsey & Co found that only 89 white women and 85 women of colour were promoted for every 100 men promoted to manager status. 

At the same time, other studies reveal that having more women in senior-level positions can be a corporate advantage. A recent study found that senior-level teams with a greater level of gender diversity are 21% more likely to have “above average profitability”, and generally be much more engaged and productive.

Additionally, with women being the breadwinners of 41% of households, they need jobs that offer good career progression that’s on par with their male counterparts. Due to the lack of career progression, many mothers may decide to stay at home full time and go into freelancing, where they have more flexibility with how they spend their time and how much they earn, rather than rejoining the workforce. 

The sky-high cost of childcare 

Unfortunately, as previously mentioned one of the main reasons for women leaving the workforce is the unaffordability of childcare which makes it impossible to return for many women. However, if childcare was more affordable or if organisations implemented childcare support measures, women could pursue their career goals while still taking care of their families. It would create a more equal and diverse workforce, benefiting everyone involved.

Robert Frick, a corporate economist with the Navy Federal Credit Union said “COVID was the bomb that really broke down the childcare system. He estimates that we have experienced a significant decline in at least 100,000 childcare workers since early 2020. This shortage of childcare providers has resulted in a concerning situation where the remaining workers can increase their fees, making it even more challenging for families to find and afford suitable childcare options.

Final Thoughts

Women shouldn’t have to choose between being a mother and having a career. This disparity in opportunities and expectations for women stems from a prevailing bias that persists within the workforce, particularly towards mothers. 

The pandemic brought the issue of flexible/hybrid working arrangements to the forefront. However, it has also shed light on the deeper problem of hiring bias and inadequate maternity policies within organisations that hinder women from accessing those opportunities.

The reality is that there has been a mass exodus of highly skilled professionals, predominantly women, leaving the workforce, and they are hesitant to return due to the various barriers they face. This situation poses a significant loss of talent for organisations. Leaders must acknowledge and address the bias surrounding female professionals, and adapt hiring processes to keep bias out of the equation to ensure a level playing field for all candidates.

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