According to recent data, nearly 3 million women have left the labor force in the past year. The labor participation rate of women remains 2 points below what it was pre-pandemic, and research has shown there has been a uniquely negative impact on working mothers, black women and women in senior leadership compared to the impact on men. And in one year, women globally lost $800 billion in income due to Covid-19.

CBS News shared that, “Before the pandemic, women consisted of more than 50% of the country’s workforce, underlining their importance to the economy. But that number has dropped sharply as many women, particularly mothers of young children, have been furloughed or laid off. Many others have had to choose between showing up at front-line jobs or caring for their children who, with daycare centers closed and school underway remotely, would otherwise be left without supervision.”

This is a critical problem for the American workforce that needs to be addressed with new, effective actions that support and accelerate women’s workforce reentry.

What can women do to support their own success in reentering the workforce, and what actions do leaders and managers need to take to make the reentry more feasible and successful?

To address these important questions, I caught up this week with Leslie Tarnacki, SVP of Human Resources at WorkForce Software, who brings more than 22 years of executive level HR experience to her role. In this position, Tarnacki is responsible for all global HR functions, including talent acquisition and onboarding, employee relations, organizational development, compensation and succession planning. She also partners with the leadership team on employee engagement strategies and sustaining a high-performance culture.

WorkForce Software is a leading provider of enterprise SaaS-based workforce management solutions.

Here’s what Tarnacki shares:

Kathy Caprino: How can HR leaders and managers make sure their companies and teams are creating career advancement opportunities for women?

Leslie Tarnacki: There are several steps leaders can take to incentivize women to stay in their roles and to support their growth and development.

First, recognizing and seeking to reverse the negative effect the pandemic had on women in the workplace is critical—especially right now. More than 800,000 women left the workforce between August and September 2020, and it’s taking time to bring them back. It’s important for managers to learn more about the circumstances that led to their departure from the workforce and offer solutions that will provide meaningful support to women or the additional flexibility that may be required to become a desirable employer to women whose unmet needs were sufficient to drive them away from their positions.

Numerous studies conducted demonstrate that it’s imperative to offer the flexibility that women need to support their complex lives. Whether it’s childcare uncertainty or taking care of an aging or ailing parent, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on working women. Technology aimed at the day-to-day experiences of employees—like the platform we’ve built at WorkForce Software—can help connect women to their companies and enable managers to gather feedback regularly and instantly react and support working women in the moments that matter most.

Creating a culture that encourages openness and empathy are also key. Women are underrepresented in positions of power, often dramatically so. For this to change, we must be intentional and seek ways to accelerate change.

One way to do this is to ensure gender diversity among the people reviewing resumes and conducting interviews. Another method is to offer benefits that are meaningful, flexible and fit with many different lifestyles.

Caprino: If you’re a leader or manager, what must you stop doing if you want to encourage and support women to thrive in your work culture?

Tarnacki: Stop presenting yourself as someone who has all the answers and engage your teams in solutions. What we have been through and continue to go through as a result of the pandemic is a truly unprecedented event in modern history. And as cases rise again in various locations around the world, one that isn’t over. It’s better to get feedback directly from individuals than to build policies and programs for people that may or may not really address the underlying need.

It truly is about transparency and collaboration with the team. Stop leading as if you know what’s best and encourage the team, particularly the women on your team, to guide you on true work-life balance because that’s the only way you’ll get the level of sustained, successful execution you need. 

Stepping back and removing any critical obstacles will help women engage more fully and grab hold of the opportunities in front of them.   

Caprino: How can female employees best advocate for themselves and their needs— whether it’s a hybrid schedule or something else?

Tarnacki: Advocating for yourself is something a lot of women struggle with over the course of their careers. Many women don’t want to appear “pushy” or “demanding,” but at the same time, it’s important to strike a balance so you aren’t saying ‘yes’ to every project or request that comes your way.

Find a mentor or more senior-level sponsor  you can align with who understands your personal challenges and the obstacles you are looking to overcome, and ask for their suggestions. Some companies have created executive women’s groups which can serve as an open forum for employees to not only share their grievances, but more importantly to seek solutions together. Getting others’ perspectives can be valuable in arming you with what to ask for when pushing for change.

When negotiating for a hybrid or flexible schedule in particular, it’s important to give solid examples to back up your ask. Many office workers have been fully remote for more than a year, and have thrived in that environment. Use this to your advantage in your negotiation. Offering examples of where you have excelled and surpassed your project goals will be valuable in showing your manager that you can succeed while in a flexible environment and should be allowed to continue working as such.

That said, it’s important to go in with realistic expectations. Some companies have put strict policies in place about a return to the office, so your HR team or manager may be hesitant to make exceptions or to provide special treatment. Have a plan in place in case your request cannot be accommodated. Whether that’s looking for a new opportunity or shifting obligations outside of work to make your office time doable is up to you, but be realistic.

Caprino: Can you share your tips for females just starting out in their careers at this time? What should they keep in mind?

Tarnacki: Here are several tips:

Don’t be afraid to be yourself

If you try to hide who you are, you won’t end up in a career or environment that truly makes you happy. Finding a job you love is important.

Take risks

Stretching out of your comfort zoneand taking risks is the best way to learn. You will learn so much from your mistakes and be better because of it.

Use your voice 

It’s easy to think your hard work and accomplishments will speak for themselves but that’s not always true. Be comfortable promoting yourself, not with arrogance but by speaking up to acknowledge how you’ve moved the needle at your organization and make sure your ideas and contributions are visible. It’s also very important to gracefully accept credit and praise. Women often deflect times they’re being praised or recognized because they are natural levelers, but this can be a disadvantage in the workplace.

The more you learn to be confident, the more confident you’ll appear. Be persistent and be a person others want to work with but consistently being kind and earning trust from team members at every level and in every area of the organization.

Caprino: If an individual is feeling underappreciated or undervalued at work, how do you suggest they address that with their manager?

Tarnacki: Connect with your manager directly—don’t complain to colleagues. When you do this, come with key points you want to address and planned solutions. Everyone’s situation is unique, but it’s important to be armed with ideas of how to rectify the problem, rather than just pointing out that a problem exists. This will also force you to get in touch with what would really be most beneficial to you. 

As tough as it can be for an employee to confront an issue like this, it’s critical to initiate the dialogue that may push you outside your comfort zone. If you’re not getting the recognition you deserve, don’t stop with conversations with your manager.  Seek out a mentor with influence at your company who can help you navigate ways in which you can get the visibility needed to really show your value to the team and business. 

Be good at what you do and don’t shy away from taking credit for a job or project or task well-done while always keeping your manager in the loop. But it’s also important to keep that balanced with humility and graciousness. Don’t keep score with your peers and coworkers but do take opportunities to recognize and praise those around you when they’re deserving because that tends to result in positive attention on your own performance.  

Finally, make sure senior leaders know who you are, what you do and how that impacts the business and when you are recognized say “Thank you” without downplaying your contributions. It’s important to figure out what it is you deserve. Recognition can mean many different things so you need to figure out what you want and need in order to get it. Trusting that your employer will want to find a solution that meets both the employee and the employer’s needs is the right place to start.

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Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their most rewarding careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs, Most Powerful You course, and Finding Brave podcast. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here