The Return of Women to the Workforce

by Cameron Edwards, SVP Client Strategy and Operations

It was a shocking number when I saw it. Pre-pandemic, the breakdown of women representation across our Matlen Silver spectrum was 46%, at a time when women comprised 50.4% of the US workforce in January 2020. Being that we are tech-based, that was a fantastic data point, since statistically the overall representation of women in tech was hovering around 25%. As the pandemic raged that spring, however, and the US saw 3.5 million women leave the workforce, we saw our own data plummet to nearly 30%. It was a devastating reality. Now, two years later, women in the workplace are still 1.1 million short from where they were overall. As a female leader in staffing, who overlaps the tech space, it was imperative to me to understand – and work to solve – this pressing issue we continue to face.

Understanding the context of why women left the workforce – and what we have to do to remedy that.

On paper, it would seem that women are returning to the workforce in droves since pandemic restrictions have eased and hiring is at an all-time high based on extraordinary talent demand. But it is also a numbers game. Yes, women seem to be applying for or returning to positions in greater numbers, but is that only because so many had left in the first place when the pandemic struck? It’s almost like digging a hole and refilling it with the same sand.

What was the driving force behind this exodus? In one word – family. In a second word – childcare. That answer seems trite, but the historical concept of “woman as caregiver” was never truer than when the schools shuttered, the day care centers closed and aging parents needed protection and support. Mom had to make the decision to mind her family or manage her career, and the former will always win out. Yes, the crash course in remote work was a help; many women who were able to take advantage of this flexible work style did so, and flourished. That’s not to say with this added flexibility that burnout still wasn’t a concern. In fact, burnout during the height of pandemic was real, and certainly is considered a catalyst to the Great Resignation we are experiencing today, because there are only so many balls that can be juggled at once.

But, the option of flexibility has at least changed people’s perspective. For example, a candidate I know started pursuing new opportunities because of something she experienced during the remote-phase of working. One afternoon, she had to pick up her child from school and dial into a conference call at the same time. The background noise became a little loud for a moment. Later, she was reprimanded for it. This was a professional who worked in a company for 8 years, was a proven performer and a valued team member – and she was not given the leeway needed to attend to her life at a time when we were all trying to adapt to the new normal.

That’s just not the world anymore.

To climb back to pre-pandemic levels of women in the workforce, leadership across all industries must be deliberate in their strategies and tactical efforts to recruit and hire women to hit that mark, as soon as we can.

It is the very concept of flexibility, coupled with human understanding, that will be the deciding factors in improving the return of women to the workforce. Recently I engaged in an exercise to help a client look at historical data for hiring, and use that information to determine how they could better hit their DE&I goals.  The data showed that the remote offerings during the Pandemic resulted in higher engagement with women and diverse candidates – those opportunities balanced candidate work-life more positively without any loss to productivity. The data also highlighted that commute-heavy areas that had open positions didn’t see greater engagement for hiring.

The result of the data analytics shows a connection that leaning into a fully remote or hybrid situation will be able to capture diverse talent during this Great Resignation, or “reshuffling” if you will, because it is spurred on by the affinity to the flexibility we experienced. It is a changed mindset. So, while talent may have been happy in their position, being told they have to return to work with no flexible option will cause them to explore those remote/hybrid opportunities because there are plenty out there.

Remote isn’t the only answer to increasing women representation in the workforce. It’s about sourcing, targeting, education, and – empathy?

Empathy may not commonly fall into a list of what our recruiting strategy should be, but it’s a notable concept because it coincides with a [Matlen] silver lining to the challenge we face. A recent McKinsey study suggests that overall, women leaders are more empathetic and that during the pandemic, women excelled in leadership because they came from a place of empathy. Understanding the family and child-care constraints that employees faced was a strength and attribute for female leadership. Women made bounds at the C-Suite level during the pandemic, and shined in those leadership roles.

This empathy also translates to a greater responsibility to helping others find what they are looking for, too. For instance, our Matlen Silver Leadership team is majority women in the tech staffing space. As an organization, we have been able to eliminate some barriers and lean into a different perspective of human connection – with empathy. It was as simple as coming from a place of grace and understanding, that if you believe in your people and you hired the right people, they are going to get their job done. It may not be the traditional hours or work setting, but they will be productive.

As we were all trying to function as normal in an unnormal world we couldn’t get complacent. Even though we were afforded a remote work option, we had to stop and pause because there were still challenging issues; spouses losing jobs, family health, losing loved ones, social injustice events surrounding us. We needed to stop and check in our people – deliberate in asking “how are you doing” – and we knew we needed to continue to do that indefinitely.

I was fortunate that my company had the foresight to support that culture. They understood that after all of this, people don’t want to sacrifice anything anymore – as a woman professional, I don’t want to sacrifice my family for my job anymore, and perhaps that flexibility may not have been there had the world stayed as it was. However, we also have to remember that not every woman has the same supportive scenario at work – they may not have that choice.

We have a responsibility to help those people look for a better situation for them.

So how do we do that?

We have to be deliberate and intentional in our approach to getting women back into the workforce by:

  • Finding those remote opportunities.
  • Investing in reskilling and upskilling programs for women candidates.
  • Making a commitment to the non-traditional job seekers – not just hiring from a resume, but hiring off their ability and capability, giving a non-traditional seeker a level playing field who might not get picked on paper for a job.
  • Providing women with mentorship early on to understand the opportunities in front of them, particularly in the tech world, and how tech can convey across multiple industries.

As a tech staffing company, we have to attract women to tech by looking at the individual and connecting them to employee resource groups or mentorships, and giving them a pathway to get from “here to there.”

Historically we don’t see as much representation in the core development roles, but more so the functional tech roles in product marketing, project management, analytics, etc. While sources predict that women representation in tech will reach 33% this year, we have to do our part to achieve that and show female candidates all the options in tech at their disposal.

  • At Matlen Silver, we want to be a stepping stone to give you the road map to get you there – informing on certifications, assistance with reskilling.
  • We have to partner with clients who want to make that commitment with us to our consultants to offer benefits like tuition reimbursement and training.
  • We must develop creative hiring methodologies – we can’t create more people but we can find ways to work with who we have to make them fit.
  • We need to work with other agencies for returnships – that means we do right by the consultant to find the opportunity for them even if it means referring to another agency.
  • We have to make strides earlier – getting to younger generation females early on to introduce them to a career path in tech and exposing them to tech at an earlier age by participating and sponsoring programs that have young women meet with tech leaders, hear career stories and do hands-on exercises.

We must look beyond the resume

Using the assessment tools as a means to evaluate candidates and eliminate the fraudulent candidates, especially during the pandemic, became an important practice. It has continued to grow as an answer to the ever-looming skill gap and talent demand that forces us to get creative to find the numbers we need. We need talent, so we have to broaden the scope.

Assessment evaluation also encourages diversity of thought and perspective when you use different criteria than formalized training and pedigree for hiring. Hiring candidates who have the same Master’s degree in the same discipline is not diverse thinking. The IT community is committed to looking at different types of hires. It’s important to understand different paths can lead into technology – you get that toe in that water and you never know where it will lead to.

We should set lofty goals

A hypothetical question was posed to me, “As a hiring manager, how do I make 50% of my applicants be women?”

It’s a great question and it has a root cause. Studies show that women will only apply to a job if they feel they have a likely fit at 100%, whereas as a male applicant needs less of a fit per the job at 60% to have the confidence to apply for it. What does that tell us?

  • We need to adjust our job descriptions to remove those unconscious biases – highlight the true necessities so that we don’t discourage applicants.
  • Lean into offering more flexible positions.
  • Train hiring managers on their own unconscious bias – removing names from documentation, hiring on assessments not just resume, having female colleagues in the interview process, introducing current employees to candidates with whom they can identify.
  • Evaluate your wages for equality – “this position pays this” – whoever is hired for it, gets that compensation.
  • Don’t stop at the hiring process but look at what are we doing to nurture that hire so that they stay? And, so that they bring in referrals and they continue to flourish. We need continued mentorship programs, connecting people working on similar projects, and providing a community for them at work. 

Where do we go from here to encourage the return of women to the workforce?

While we have made strides, we also lost so much, and now we have to be intentional about getting woman back to the table, by allowing them to bring their best selves to work and genuinely supporting equal opportunity.

For instance, raise your hand if you have been in a meeting where a female colleague contributes a thought that is ignored, only to be followed up by a male colleague that imparts the same comment and is then celebrated. Those simple, most likely unintentional scenarios as one-off events may seem harmless. But when they become a likely pattern is when we perpetuate this disparity dynamic. So, speak up and hold leadership accountable to call it out. When we start identifying the issues and addressing them, only then will the conversation change.

 For perspective, I’ll share one last data point:

A study conducted by the University of Colorado and shared in Harvard Business Review noted the following:

In a hiring scenario of 4 candidates:

  • If 3 are female and 1 is male, the odds of the woman being hired is 75%
  • Likewise, 2 women, 2 men in the hiring pool, the chances are 50%-50%
  • When there are 3 men and 1 woman, the likelihood of the woman being hired is statistically 0.

Yes, of course, hiring the best candidate is the optimal outcome, but we have to be cognizant of the statistical barriers, and diligent in trying to break them to ensure that we do.

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