Bring Women Back to the Workforce

The numbers are jarring. Since March 2020, nearly 2.5 million women have left the U.S. workforce. Host Melanie Green talks to Laura Zarrow, Executive Director of People Analytics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, about some of the reason’s women have been dropping out of the workforce, and how data and flexible work could bring them back.  

PODCAST | 25m
June 9, 2021
S3:Ep6

Executive summary

  • Farida Mercedes shares her experience leaving a job she loved due to the pandemic and her expectations on re-entering the workforce
  • Laura Zarrow gives insight into what the data is showing and how flexible work enables companies to diversify their workforces

Featured voices

Laura Zarrow
Executive Director of People Analytics
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Melanie Green (host):

We’ve all heard the headlines.  Women have been leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers since the pandemic started. Sectors like retail and tourism that employ high percentages of women have been hit hard.  And women have most often been the ones to feel the added demands of caregiving this year. Many have had to choose between a job and looking after their families.

In the U.S. alone, two and a half million women have left the workforce over the past year, compared to 1.8 million men. That’s a major difference from the year before, when for the first time since 2010, women outnumbered men in the workforce. And just as troubling, experts say that society will feel the effects of losing so many women from the workforce for years to come. 

A major report from the World Economic Forum on the global gender gap paints a grim picture.  Before the pandemic it was forecast that we’re one hundred years away from gender parity. This year that forecast has shot up even more. 

Growing gender gap

According to the report -  it will now take almost 136 years to close the gender gap worldwide. That’s one more generation of women that won’t see gender parity. Not as many women are being hired into leadership roles. Women are losing jobs at a higher rate than men. And they’re being hired back more slowly. That’s reversed up to six years of progress.

And Black and Latina women have been hit harder with unemployment than any other group since the pandemic started.

For years I’ve been used to not seeing brown faces like mine at work. Seeing fewer women? It all feels bleak. So the question today - what will it take to bring women back into the workforce?

We’re going to hear from one of the women who left.

Hi, I’m Melanie Green.  You’re listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix.

Farida Mercedes:

We were the number one beauty company in the world. There were many different things that we were doing to try to ensure a great place to work.

Melanie Green (host):

Before the pandemic Farida Mercedes had a job she loved.  She was an assistant VP of Human Resources with a big, successful cosmetics company. She loved the fast-paced corporate world.  You can hear the pride in her voice about what she achieved there.

 

Farida Mercedes:

I supported many different teams. I traveled, I believe if I last remember, I think it was 47 States of the 50 States of the US.

 

Melanie Green (host):

Farida put in long days over those many years with the company and when children came along, Farida still managed to juggle all of her work responsibilities with family life.

 

Tenuous work life balance

Navigating a job in the corporate world and raising her family was a fine balance. Farida made it work. But during the pandemic things got shaky. Farida’s husband is a New York City corrections officer. He had to isolate himself away from his family because there was a risk of bringing home the virus. Farida had a lot on her plate.   

 

And then things got even more chaotic.  Schools closed.  Things were getting stressful at work. Sales at the company were dropping. There was talk of layoffs.

 

Farida Mercedes:

So a lot of the conversations that I was having on a day-to-day basis were tough ones, very tough conversations, and it got very, very hard.

 

And on top of that, my children were struggling. My children were in preschool and first grade, and they needed mom to help them through every assignment and every homework and everything they were being asked to do. And it was incredibly overwhelming for me. I did assignments with them between meetings. I put off a lot of assignments. Sometimes I would do that with them at night and not during the day. I was trying to juggle so many things at once. I was also scared. My parents were living with us and they're older and I didn't want them to get sick. We didn't know what was happening. There were just so many things that were riding on me as the matriarch of my family.

 

Melanie Green (host):

That’s been one of the most difficult parts for so many women with children. But for a Latina woman? It’s rough.

 

Farida Mercedes:

It's so hard because minority women specifically - I feel all women in general - but minority women I think are raised to have a specific role. Like there's a domestic responsibility. And when I say domestic, I don't mean just cooking and cleaning. I just think that there's a, of keeping the family together. You can work, you can have a career, you can be a president, you can be a CEO, you can be a CFO, you can do all those things, but you still have to have your domestic role. at home is the way that I feel for women, especially us minority women. And it's hard because the expectations for us are just so much greater than for others.

Melanie Green (host):

Data from the U.S. Jobs Report in February showed that In January, the unemployment rate was eight and a half percent for Black women, eight point eight percent for Latina women and five point one percent for White women. Before January, Black and Latina women faced double digit unemployment rates. 

For Farida, all of the competing pressures last year - homeschooling, worrying  about her parents, and more demands at work -  began to collide.  And with her husband still isolating away from the family, it was all falling on her shoulders. 

Farida remembers the moment she realized that she couldn’t keep working. It happened last August. It was a day Farida had been dreading for months - part of her job as an HR executive was to deliver bad news about layoffs to her valued employees.  Some of them had worked with the company for years. 

Farida Mercedes:

I started having these really tough conversations with employees and every employee cried and rightfully so. I had an employee whose wife had stage four cancer. I had another employee whose husband had just lost his job the day before.

 

And after one of my conversations, I came downstairs cause I needed a breath. I just needed to walk away. And my sons were outside playing in a bouncy house and I came outside and my mom had said something that was humorous.

 

She said something that made me laugh. And my seven-year-old son looked at me. He said, ‘Wow, mom, I haven't seen you laugh in so long. You're actually happy’. And that hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, ‘I'm not showing up for my kids. My kids haven't seen me smile in I don't know how long. I'm not showing up for my job because I feel completely broken by what's happening right now because of the pandemic. I can't do it.’  

Melanie Green (host):

Farida thought very carefully for a few weeks about what it would mean to leave her job, then told her manager she couldn't see another alternative. She had to leave the work she loved.

 

Farida Mercedes:

And even the day that I said it to my boss, to my manager, and I said, I can't do this anymore. I have to be here for my kids. Like they're most important. I brought them here and if I'm not able to show up for them, then why did I do it? And I cried. She looked at me and she said, ‘You have to do what's right for you.’

 

Melanie Green (host):

This isn’t the end of Farida’s story.  And in case you’re wondering, her story has a happy ending.  We’ll hear more from her in a bit. 

 

Laura Zarrow:

I am ready.

 

Melanie Green (host)

That’s Laura Zarrow. She’s the Executive director of Wharton People Analytics at the Wharton school in Pennsylvania. I asked Laura to give me an idea of the scale of women leaving the workforce and what that means for companies and the women who had to leave.

 

The story behind the numbers

 

Laura Zarrow:

Happy to, and also to provide some context so we can make sense out of what are some pretty staggering numbers.  Women's levels in the workforce are dropping back almost as if the last 12 years haven't happened. What that means in terms of numbers is that almost 72 percent of the people who left the workforce since February of 2020 are women to a total of about 2.5 million people in the U S alone. It's kind of a staggering number. The really important thing is to peel back the curtains and understand who's leaving and why. Because we've got people who are falling into two very different categories, we've got the people whose jobs have been eliminated, and then we've got the people for whom work has become just untenable. Either way, it's a huge impact to these women, their families, and also their long term economic future and our collective economic progress.

 

Melanie Green (host):

This sobering picture is a reminder that we need to understand why women have left the workplace on such a large scale.

 

Laura Zarrow:

There are a whole bunch of people, particularly those who are in the service industry for whom their jobs have just gone away. The economic toll of the pandemic and the way that it's hit small businesses, large businesses, organizations, you know, all over the place. These frontline workers, there's no employment for them.

 

And there isn't enough unemployment insurance to keep their heads above water. And that means they're out there looking for work. Then there's a group of people for whom work became impossible. The idea that there's no childcare and schools are closed. So whether you have a three month old, a two year old or an eight year old or even a 12 year old or 16 year old, there's no structure to keep them safe, occupied during the day. So you find these people confronted with this kind of unbearable reality of how do I make all of this work simultaneously? And for a lot of people, they got to a point where they said, I just can't.

 

How can data identify the problem?

 

Melanie Green (host)

Here’s where Laura’s expertise - people analytics - comes in.  Simply put - people analytics means facts about individuals.  Facts and data that can be used to solve problems. What kind of data? Well - it’s the vast amount we collect in our day to day lives on our computers and our phones. Think about analytics as the science of tech. It's evidence-based research.  It can be used to help bring women back to the workforce.

 

Laura Zarrow:

People analytics will work in organizations where there's already a mature data practice. Qualified analytics professionals and people who are using their data and asking the compelling questions to start to find out where help is needed and how best to provide it. You need to know that you have policies and culture that are going to make whatever insights you derive in people analytics, whatever plans you develop using your people, analytics actually be successful because it's that pairing, which is where the magic really happens. So for example, an organization could look at, what are all of the open positions they have? Use analytics to also match them up by who was likely to have left during COVID and what the patterns are there. They may then say, not only get who they were, where did they hire them from? What were their educational backgrounds? What were their pay levels to start to identify, where could they go to recruit?

 

Melanie Green (host):

People analytics is often used in human resources to help organizations thrive. Be more efficient. But it’s also helping employees succeed too.

 

Culture surveys and flexible work

 

Laura Zarrow:

How could they design desirable packages for their return but then also to maybe employ some other things like culture surveys to reach out to see what was going on in the organization that the data sets themselves might not reveal. How much was the absence of childcare onsite an issue? To what degree were flex policies not being utilized?

 

That happens to be a really good example because you can go into HR data and see who's taken their vacation time, who hasn't, who's maxed out their leave time, who hasn't.  Of the  people who left, did their managers take flex time? How did it split by gender? All of that might then point out you could be in an organization where the answer is actually everyone really used their benefits, including male supervisors, which normalized it for people.

And with a culture survey, you could then confirm that people felt like it was safe to take that flex time. What often happens though, is you may go through those kinds of studies and discover that only women were taking their flex time when they had to, the men were not. Male supervisors were not. And then that could certainly correlate with a culture where employees get the message that while you get flex time as a policy, we really don't want you to take it.

Melanie Green (host):

The connection Laura Zarrow makes between people analytics and flexible work echoes something Farida Mercedes says. She talks about how more flexibility in the workplace would make it possible for her  and so many other women to stay in their jobs.

 

Farida Mercedes:

Women will want more. They've had it for over a year. You cannot expect me to be at work for 10 hours a day for five days a week. It's not an option. And I think companies now, have, specifically tech companies are saying, it doesn't matter where you work. As long as you're working, doesn't matter which hours you work, as long as the work gets done. That is the expectation now.      

 

Melanie Green (host):

Farida knows that flexible work would be the only way she’d want to return to a job like the one she had.

 

Farida Mercedes:

That would be my expectation. If I decided to go back to corporate at best, I would be in the office three days a week. And that wouldn't be every week because I know how effective I can be at home.

 

Hybrid work ‘profoundly important’

 

Melanie Green (host)

Laura Zarrow says the kind of data she talked about earlier - surveys, how many meetings people have, absences - can give key insights to companies looking to keep women in their ranks.  And data can lead to policies that will support women. 

 

Laura Zarrow:

So this is where organizations need to look particularly at the stage of employee and figure out how do you relieve the pressure? How do you create the opportunity? How do you apply policies that are going to help them navigate these unusually hard times and stay in the game in a way that's sustainable for everybody? And this, to jump ahead a little bit is where hybrid and remote work is profoundly important not as a mandate, but as a choice. Not to mention childcare and flex policies. 

 

Melanie Green (host):

Long before the pandemic, data collected in survey after survey  - showed that a flexible work arrangement was a game-changer for women.  Laura Zarrow’s own experience bears that out.

 

Laura Zarrow

I was a working mom through my daughter's whole life, single mom. And there were times where I had to go to the clarinet recital or take her to the doctor.

 

I was fortunate that I've always worked for really progressive employers and bosses where the minute I had a laptop, it was, you know, work where you need to. Get the work done. And on the days when there was a snow day or she was sick, or a recital or a parent teacher conference -  because I could work from home, I was productive all day long. I could leave for half an hour, go do the parent teacher discussion and then come back and work some more on my own time at night. That flexibility let me make both parts of my life work in an enduring way over time. It also made me a very grateful and loyal employee. But from my employer's perspective, I think it also kept me on the ball, on top of my projects and in the game, regardless of where I physically was. 

Employers, governments can help keep women in the workforce

Melanie Green (host):

When it comes to including and retaining women in the workforce, Farida says we’ve got a long way to go.  And that we need to ask some tough questions about why more isn’t being done.

Farida Mercedes

It took us a very long time to get to a point where there's more women in the workforce, especially more minority women in the workforce. And now in positions that we weren't seeing them before in these high level positions that we have pushed to get them there. And now many of these women had to proactively themselves make the decision, to say, ‘Oh my God, I, you know, I was at this point, I was on my way to this next level position. And I have to walk away because my family comes first’. And now what are companies going to do? What is society going to do? What is the government going to do to support them to come back to work? It's not just the companies. It's also on the government, the country.

Built-in bias in hiring tools

Melanie Green (host):

Systems set up to analyze data are created by humans.  Laura Zarrow cautions that the people who create those systems have to think carefully about what they’re designing.  They have to be fair.  She says recruitment and hiring are a great example of why.

Laura Zarrow:

It's one of the most important and I think most accessible places to start being more inclusive in our hiring practices.

How do you think about things like interviews and resumee readings so that they're fair and effective? But with people analytics, especially when we're talking about AI or machine learning and increasingly the reading of resumes, one-way video interviews, it's really critically important that when we're setting up those systems, we're designing them and setting them up so that they don't automatically negatively correlate things that you'll see in women's lives or on their resumes with a lack of potential for success. Because if you think about it, the same biases that people carry, they build into the algorithms in the systems that they design. And so a really rigorous, thoughtful process of making sure that the fundamental tools that you use to write a job description, review a resume, select somebody to interview and evaluate their interview processes are fair and unbiased.

Melanie Green (host):

Laura’s warning about bias speaks to a level of understanding companies need to have about what all employees need to succeed. And that relates back to a value she says we all need now more than ever.   

 

Laura Zarrow:

We're learning a lot about this in our society right now is that we can't afford to operate without compassion and empathy. It hurts everyone. It's what's behind unwelcoming workplaces, a lack of inclusion, all the racism that we see permeating our society and our histories. We want to bring solutions to bear on bringing everybody to work. We've got to remember, we're dealing with people and to be humane in the process.

 

Melanie Green (host):

People first. And the entry point into an organization - seems like a good place to start.

 

Laura Zarrow:

I'm hoping that there's a regular practice of healthy and fair interview and recruitment strategies where everyone comes into the workforce and is offered mentorship and sponsorship that the culture has changed so that it's really about an ongoing process of development and aimed at retention. I mean, I think that's true in a lot of places, but without mentorship, sponsorship, a more inclusive culture, not everybody gets to benefit from that and that in particular, making choices about things like whether it's continuing in education or having one child or six, that's not allowed. The culture doesn't accept that as being equated with not serious about your work or career and that people can be protected and celebrated for who they are as whole people and what that then brings of value to the workplace.

Time is wealth

Melanie Green (host):

For her part, Farida is finding wholeness through work life balance. She’s starting her own business.

 

Farida Mercedes:

I'm actually taking a bet on myself. I am in the process of starting a new clothing line for children, specifically, boys called Pancake Kids. It's completely new to me and I'm very excited about it because I've struggled for so long finding cute boy clothes at an affordable price.

Melanie Green (host):

Farida is busy these days.  She’s also starting a nonprofit to encourage and support younger children to give back to their communities.

Farida Mercedes:

So I'm really looking forward to building that. Because I feel that our children are a bit entitled in this day and age, and they don't realize that they have a lot more than other children. And I want them to really start thinking about what it means to give back. And I want to raise good humans.  I want to raise good humans and I needed to be here to do it.

Melanie Green (host):

Moving words from Farida about finding a way to work that leaves room and time for everything else. 

 

Farida Mercedes:

Time is wealth. And it's the time you get to do the things that you love. That's what makes you wealthy. It's not all the money you have in the bank. It's the time to do the things that you love because any, and the pandemic proved that. And there were two significant things that happened in my life that have proven that. The first one was 9/11 and now.

Life can be taken away from you at any moment. Any moment. And you have to make the best of it. And we know this because we lose people and loved ones at any moment. Car accident, cancer, your loved ones, or yourself can be taken at any moment. So what are we doing right now to make the most of that one precious life? Because you only got one precious life. And that's what I'm doing. 

Melanie Green (host):

You’ve been listening to Remote Works,  an original podcast on Fieldwork by Citrix.  Next time, what is work going to look like for gen Z?  We’ll put that question to the experts. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. That’s at citrix.com/remoteworks.

 

 

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