The COVID-19 pandemic upended every segment of the economy and had an especially outsize impact on women’s participation in the labor force. In the first few years of the pandemic, millions of American women left the workforce to care for their families as schools and childcare centers shuttered. Three years on, women’s representation in leadership and in the workforce more broadly is recovering, a bright spot for inclusion efforts and for corporate outcomes. Nonetheless, significant opportunities remain for companies aiming to boost the inclusion of women at every level.
State of Women’s Leadership and Participation
The coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact on women’s participation in the labor force – one that will not be reversed soon. In the first year of the pandemic alone, 54 million women worldwide left the workforce, almost 90% permanently. Some of these losses have begun to be recouped as COVID-19-era pressures on women in the workforce have abated. A study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn found that the share of women leaders at the C-suite level rose to 28% in the last year, up from 17% when the groups last published a study in 2015. Similarly, a survey by data provider MSCI found that the rate of women’s appointment to board seats accelerated in 2022, putting global boards on track to achieve gender equity four years sooner than the previous estimate.
Nonetheless, gains at the leadership level belie the state of affairs at lower levels, where the female workforce is still facing obstacles to returning to work and thriving there. Despite historically low joblessness, unemployment rates remain higher for women than for men, and higher still for women of color. At the end of September, COVID-19-era federal grants subsidizing childcare centers expired, ending support that 80% of all childcare centers across the country relied on and precipitating what experts are calling a “childcare cliff.” Less affordable and available childcare is likely to drive some women, who are more likely than men to take on childcare duties in the family, from the workplace, creating another obstacle for women hoping to rise in the ranks and for companies aiming to increase gender diversity in their workforces. Even if women are able to return to the workforce, gaps in employment can result in lower earnings over time.
Losses of women workers at all levels of the workforce are bad for equity outcomes today and in the future, as a lack of women workers at the entry and middle levels will have lasting impacts on the pipeline to leadership roles. According to a global study by IBM, the share of women in the leadership pipeline has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels – women represent just 14% of senior vice president roles (down from 18% in 2019) and 16% in vice president roles (previously 19%). The dearth of middle management roles filled by women will bear out in sluggish increases in leadership in coming years as companies struggle to find promotable female candidates.
Gender Diversity Going Forward
Increasing gender diversity remains a priority for employers of all sizes. Studies have repeatedly shown that gender diversity in the workplace has immense benefits to productivity, profitability, and employee satisfaction. Companies with inclusive cultures see improved staff retention, improved recruitment, and above average profitability (a McKinsey study found that the most gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than their less-diverse peers). Younger generations increasingly see solid diversity efforts as central to a company’s appeal; for example, a recent Monster survey reports that 83% of Gen Z workers say that workplace diversity is important to them, and around 33% say that they would not even apply for a job in a company where diversity is not considered.
Despite setbacks during and after the coronavirus pandemic, equity-focused companies have many strategies available to them. A Harvard Business Review analysis on broader diversity efforts highlights three categories of workplace inclusivity that could improve gender diversity and the promotion pipeline. First is “debiasing work,” which includes practices meant to remove barriers to equal opportunity – such as scrubbing stereotypical language from job ads (which might attract or repel women) or conducting structured interviews with consistent questions to minimize personal biases. Second is “ambient work,” which refers to culture-wide strategies that do not involve discrete hiring instructions, such as conducting outreach to a diverse set of colleges, establishing employee resource groups or mentorship programs for underrepresented groups, and creating a family-friendly environment with policies like flexible remote work. Finally, there is “universal work,” or the creation of work cultures that allow for greater authenticity and self-expression. Even better, many of these strategies lift all boats – all employees, regardless of their gender, race, or other protected status – thrive in a workplace environment that values and supports them.