Women are driving the labor shortage, and experts have identified a crucial solution

February 18, 2022, 6:43 PM UTC

As of last month, there are still more than one million fewer women in the labor force than in February 2020. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report indicates that men are back to normal and have recouped their pandemic-related job loss rate. Women, on the other hand, have been left behind, due in part to the struggle to find and retain childcare during the ongoing pandemic. 

But as companies are struggling with a labor shortage, the issue becomes more complicated than simply recruiting a million women back into the workforce. It’s an opportunity for companies to figure out how to retain women at all levels and set them up for success.

Even before COVID-19, Schneider Electric outlined company goals that focused on building a more diverse workforce. It was aiming to hire 50% women and make sure that 30% of candidates for senior leadership positions were women. The company found that to compete with startups and tech organizations like Google, it had to create a strong pipeline of diverse talent and institute flexible working conditions that could allow employees to also manage any caregiving responsibilities they might be juggling. 

For Schneider Electric that meant offering hybrid and remote options to employees, providing benefits like discounts to caregiving services via Care.com, and more extensive mental health benefits. 

But executives knew they had to go further to help employees feel empowered in their return to the workplace. Schneider Electric’s latest solution to addressing the increased gender divide in labor participation is its returnship program called Return2Work.

In its pilot stage, Return2Work is a six-month program that matches professional candidates who have taken a break from the corporate world with internal employment opportunities. While you don’t need to be a woman to participate in the program, the first round of candidates are. Schneider Electric’s returnship program sets out to train participants with the skills they need to thrive in their careers and help build their confidence, with the goal of finding full-time roles for all participants after six months. 

“We used to have a policy in place where if you had an open position, you had to interview at least two females to make sure that we’ve got an even playing field,” Amy deCastro, an HR executive at Schneider Electric, tells Fortune. “Now, we can’t even get the two females [to interview].”

DeCastro sees Return2Work as a proactive way to fix this pipeline program. With so many women leaving the workforce during COVID, she argues there’s an incentive to fix many of the problems facing working women. 

Finding role models has never been easy

Another solution for addressing the deficit of women in the workplace is fostering opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship. When choosing candidates for the Return2Work program, deCastro says she was looking for future mentors who will grow and stay within Schneider Electric. 

Finding a female mentor can be difficult when women don’t stay in their leadership roles, says Christine J. Spadafor, a lecturer at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. As a result, younger women struggle to find role models.

Structured mentorship initiatives only have a 16% success rate, says Spadafor. Instead, effective mentorship involves deliberate planning and making an intentional match so that women are set up with someone who can guide them throughout their careers. 

Finding a mentor can be daunting, Spadafor acknowledges, especially with so many people working from home. As uncomfortable as it might be, connecting with a mentor is all about asking for introductions and asserting oneself whenever the opportunity arises, she says. 

Women shouldn’t wait for someone to acknowledge their performance, Spadafor says. “In general, women are promoted on performance, and men are promoted on potential. So we believe ‘if I work harder, if I do super great work, someone’s going to notice me.’ And what I tell women is you can be doing that a long time, but don’t have any expectation someone’s going to notice you. Because you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

Spadafor cautions that women will fail to be noticed if they don’t take initiative and advocate for themselves.

A shift in hiring practices is necessary

Companies are beginning to re-evaluate their hiring strategies in an effort to have a more diverse workforce. Yet, there’s still a lot of worry among women who’ve taken career breaks that they won’t be able to find a new job.

According to deCastro, some of the candidates in the Return2Work program described feeling like they would never return to the corporate world due to their employment gap and feeling disheartened when they were rejected numerous times.

Some of the Schneider Electric hiring managers admitted to deCastro that while they’ve impressed by the Return2Work cohort, they might have initially passed over their resumes. Recruiters and managers have to change their mindset when seeking to hire a more diverse team, including women seeking to reenter the workforce.

“A gap on the resume is no longer a negative thing,” deCastro argues. “It’s an opportunity to ask a question and to learn more about what that person did during that gap.”

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