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Women’s labor force participation is now the lowest it’s been since 1988, according to an analysis of U.S. government statistics by the National Women’s Law Center. 

As of January, women had lost 5.3 million jobs during the pandemic, with women of color hit hardest. Faced with a lack of childcare and the ongoing pressures of having children at home—and no federal paid family leave or universal childcare—many women’s stress levels reached a breaking point. 

It’s not only women who are hurt by this—their children and spouses are also impacted. A family that can afford to own a home on two salaries may not be able to pull it off on one. It is also going to impact tax revenue. When workers lose their jobs, federal, state and local governments stop receiving the taxes taken out of their paychecks and may have to start paying them unemployment.

The effect of the “flexible workplace” on working women

One factor that’s gotten lost in the discussion, however, is the impact of rigid workplace policies on women’s ability to get back to work. Many employers have treated flexible and remote work as a temporary solution to the pandemic, as opposed to an ongoing workplace strategy. One year into the pandemic, many women are burnt out from the flexibility (and growing expectation) to work and be available 24/7. They’re working late into the night or all weekend to make up for time spent on online schooling and childcare duties. 

Ultimately, their stress and burnout will have big repercussions on businesses’ productivity, diversity and inclusion. Companies that want to continue to attract and retain women need to look at flexible work arrangements not just as an employee benefit but as a business strategy that can help them with recruitment and retention and improve employee productivity and engagement. 

What businesses can do to get women back to work

Even small and midsize firms without an HR department can create a structured policy that defines flexible work options, sets clear expectations based on a team member’s role and work arrangements, and is fairly and equitably applied across the organization. 

Companies can also make their culture friendlier to women by discouraging “presenteeism” and encouraging team members to work smarter, not longer. It’s also essential to give employees time to do deep work in a flow state, so they don’t have to do it after hours at home. Practices such as “no meeting” days and asynchronous communication can improve team performance and time management. 

Even more important, more companies need to start allowing part-time work to highly skilled employees who may be in a temporary situation where they want to work less hours now, but would still like the opportunity to advance their careers in the future. Part-time work can be structured so that someone works a set percentage of full-time hours every week for a prorated salary.

Typically, part-time work is reserved for shift workers. If it is available to professionals, they get “mommy-tracked” or “daddy-tracked” and lose all hope of getting ahead. Deloitte and IBM are among a small group of companies that have structured programs to let all employees work part-time if needed, while still allowing for career development and advancement. Both have found that it helps with employee retention and results in more diversity at the top. 

The bottom line

Promoting part-time work to a company’s entire team is important to make sure it is not stigmatized. Despite the disproportionate burden the pandemic put on women with children, there are men and people with no children who need flexibility, too. Touting the use of flexible work arrangements by senior team members can set the tone for the entire company. 

It’s sad that all of the gains for women in the workplace have been wiped away in one year, but we don’t have to accept that as a permanent situation. If we come away from the pandemic with more companies prioritizing part-time work arrangements, it’s possible to reverse course, but only if we act now.