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The secret sauce for keeping women in the workforce

April 9, 2021, 4:30 PM UTC
“While a ‘flexibility for all’ mindset supports all employees, it’s especially evident that women need more support than ever,” writes Kimberly Jones.
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As a single working mother, seeing the constant flow of headlines about women leaving the workforce at alarming rates this past year, particularly women of color, hits hard. A recent analysis revealed that while men in the United States had gained about 16,000 net jobs in December 2020, women lost a net total of 156,000 jobs. In other words, for every man that earned a new job in that time, nearly 10 women left theirs. That’s staggering. And while women are resilient—I see it day in and day out from the women all around me—we cannot sit back idly and carry on with “business as usual.” Something needs to give in order to create impactful and long-lasting systemic changes.

Keeping women in the workforce is not an option, it’s an imperative. A recent study found that if women received better access to secondary education, childcare, and flexible work arrangements, they would be able to occupy as many jobs as men and add trillions of dollars to the global economy. It’s more crucial than ever that workplaces not only extend support to women, but also consistently challenge ourselves to show up, listen, and do more. 

PwC has long upheld a culture of flexibility with benefits that are constantly evolving to meet the needs of our people. Together, they are a fundamental part of our work culture. Our expanded menu of benefits includes traditional health and medical benefits, as well as year-round flexibility, well-being and mental health support, and backup childcare reimbursement and support. As a result of supporting the evolving needs of our people, we’re fortunate to have seen a steady rate of retention among our female employees.

None of this is to say we are claiming victory. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone. However, it is undeniable that women have been affected disproportionately. And that’s why reimagining a workplace culture that supports everyone is a continual work in progress that requires ongoing self-reflection, listening to your employees, and adapting to their needs. It’s a process that every employer in corporate America should be engaging in right now if we want to retain our female employees.

And if we’ve validated anything through working during a pandemic, it’s that flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It needs to be coupled with empathy, tone at the top, and a wide range of policies and benefits. Organizations should consistently assess and redefine what they’re offering their employees. From there, it’s easier to keep company culture in tune with what employees need. Here are a few ways to start:

Empower the “windowed” workweek 

It’s important that teams work together to clearly outline what work schedules will look like and help create boundaries for team members to balance work and life. Encourage employees to be ruthlessly transparent about their schedule needs and talk about how to protect time and block windows of time throughout the day. Having the ability to work flexibly—and get work done where and how it best suits your people—can be one of the benefit offerings that employees value most.

Embrace the atypical and provide support 

When flexibility is done right, you may see atypical schedules from time to time because each person’s needs are unique and may change. Cross-functional support groups can help employees who are seeking flexible work arrangements and can also make them feel more secure in their personalized workdays.

Offer benefits that focus on empathy

Beyond a flexible day-to-day, week-by-week work schedule, it’s important to offer additional support. This may include reduced meeting schedules, no-video meetings, backup childcare options, mental health and well-being support, and even leaves of absence. 

“Everyday flexibility” that embraces the belief that flexibility isn’t something that is “earned” or “awarded” but rather something that is ingrained in the culture is key. It’s important that we encourage everyone to speak up in the workplace and say, “I might have to do things in a different way, and I can still meet my responsibilities and do great work.” 

I am hopeful that coming out of the pandemic, more organizations understand that their employees can still be successful and productive if they keep different hours, work remotely, or can’t take calls during certain times of the day. For me, I decided that for the first two years of my daughter’s life, I would deliberately step into a “season of reduced work” in order to benefit the bigger picture: my daughter’s well-being. It brought to light how powerful access to a variety of work arrangements can be. It has also been a lesson that I’ve kept with me in my current position as the People Experience leader as we continuously look to improve the work lives of our people.

Now is the time to take our most successful lessons learned during this pandemic and adjust what “business as usual” looks like. We can embrace flexibility as an integral part of the work culture moving forward. And while a “flexibility for all” mindset supports all employees, it’s especially evident that women need more support than ever. When done right, flexibility can unlock future possibilities and strengthen the diverse makeup of our workforce—because no one should have to choose between working and having a family. With the right support, it’s more than possible to have both. 

Kimberly Jones is a managing director and leader of the People Experience and Talent Center of Expertise at PwC.