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Getting back to work has seldom been more challenging for women. The U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December 2020, and women accounted for all of them. A large number of them, 1.8 million, haven’t returned, often because they were working in industries hard-hit by the virus or because they sacrificed their careers (at least temporarily), to care for children who were back home because of shuttered schools or daycares.

Now the task is to bring as many women back to work as possible, not just for the sake of the women whose lives were affected, but also because women benefit employers and the economy by providing a broader talent pool, greater diversity and improved collaboration, among other advantages. Here are some strategies companies can employ to help make that happen.

Better child care. One obvious thing companies can do to attract women back to the workplace is to provide better child care options, a process which starts by engaging employees to find out what they need. 

Once you ask for input, address your staff’s current needs. Is it possible to provide on-site child care? If not, think about partnering with one or two local daycares as you would a gym, market, or clinic, to see if you can offer discounts as an employee perk.

Also, consider allowing employees to set aside a portion of their paycheck into a special fund that can only be used for child care. This money, called employee-assisted dependent care, isn’t taxed and can offer an attractive option for working mothers. Programs like offering time off for homeschooling and mental health days also may be helpful.

Flexibility. Even with the number of jobs lost during the pandemic, it could have been worse without remote work options that allowed women the flexibility to manage their work and child-care responsibilities from home. 

But flexibility, and working from home specifically, can come at a cost: It can put pressure on women to ignore boundaries between work and home life. Employees who worked from home during the pandemic worked longer hours as a whole, which can lead to burnout.

To maintain boundaries while increasing flexibility, it’s important to make certain periods “out of bounds” for work communications. Don’t equate flexibility with an expectation that employees be available 24/7. If flexibility means less time to deal with home responsibilities or simply recharge, you’re defeating the purpose. 

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Financial incentives. Stabilizing the workforce is not just about attracting employees but also about keeping them. Frequent turnover can leave employers with a wasted investment in hiring and onboarding. 

Employees will also be more likely to leave — and less apt to come on board in the first place — if you expect them to work part-time in order to avoid paying benefits. Women are unlikely to be interested in a job that doesn’t provide them with paid time off or health care. 

Other financial incentives can include offering a 401(k) with employer contribution for retirement. Employees may also appreciate advice for the long term, like building their credit, which can help them ensure they have what it takes to weather a future crisis or make a major purchase, like a car or home.

Partnerships & training. One way employers can help bring women back into the workforce is by partnering with staffing agencies to broaden their pool of applicants. Staffing agencies are attractive to prospective employees and employers because they match the right workers with the right position, increasing the chance of a successful hire. 

It also helps to provide training for in-demand jobs. There’s a growing realization that new employees won’t have all the skills they need at the time of hiring. This isn’t realistic in an age where the number of skills required to do a single job is increasing by 10% year-over-year. Executives now see versatility and the ability to take on new roles as keys to success.

Women face major challenges in returning to the workforce, and it’s to everyone’s advantage that they overcome them. By providing child care options, greater flexibility, financial incentives, and avenues to re-engagement, employers can help equip women workers to succeed.

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