Why women left the workplace, and how best to get them to return

Some people are calling it a "crisis for the American economy." Millions of women left the workforce during the pandemic and 1.3 million of them remain out of work today. That alone is troubling. But when you realize it means there are fewer women working outside the home than there were in 1987 — a 34-year low — it becomes downright shocking.

Pre-pandemic, women had been making some headway in the workplace. McKinsey reports that the percentage of women in senior positions hit 28% in 2019, and women in the C-suite increased to 21% — two all-time highs. Movements like #MeToo were working to end sexual harassment in the workplace, and closing the gender pay gap was on the forefront of people's minds. And then the pandemic wiped out much of that progress.

What happened? 

Many industries, like hospitality, had massive layoffs as demand for their products or services dried up. But that wasn't the largest factor in women leaving the workplace. The support systems that helped women focus on their careers were also wiped out. Schools closed. Child care disappeared. Aging parents needed support.

Working parents also had to take on a second job: navigating online school with their kids. As reported in the New York Times, as part of its coverage on the toll this child-care crisis has had on women, much of the caregiving fell to women during the pandemic, leading to incredible amounts of stress, burnout and the feeling that they simply could not do it all.

According to Oxfam International, in 2020 alone, women worldwide lost $800 billion in earnings. To put it into perspective, that's more than the GDP of 98 countries. Combined. Oxfam's executive director called the figure a "conservative estimate."

How the workplace can help 

Women leaving the workplace is more than just a hit to the economy. It's a loss of gender diversity in the workplace and a lack of female perspectives. Many studies have shown that diversity in the workplace equals excellence, including one from Score, a nonprofit dedicated to helping small businesses. Companies need to put steps in place to get women back into the workforce — here are some ideas to best do that.

Hire for skills. Many women who left the workplace will have a gap in their resumes. That used to be a big red flag when trying to get a job. Hiring managers should shift that mindset and look at the skills women bring to the table — including new soft skills acquired during the pandemic like working independently, honing communication, and collaboration with remote colleagues, and dealing with complexity and ambiguity. According to PwC, 40% of workers increased their digital skills during the pandemic, and 77% report being ready to upskill even more.

Offer digital credentials. Offering women the opportunity to upskill with digital credentials has always been a win-win for employer and employee, but now it takes on a new meaning. Women lost a lot during the past year, and not just employment. If they know you're a partner in making up some of the ground they lost by helping them upskill, learn new things, become more marketable, and proving that worth with verifiable digital credentials, it could be the key to re-engaging them in the workforce.

At Credly, we're passionate about how vital digital credentials are, now more than ever. To hear more about the conversation of using skills-based hiring to improve the workforce, watch our free webinar recording, Women in Leadership: How Skills-Based Hiring Can Change the Workplace.

By Credly