Women in the workforce 2021: Where we are now, and where we go from here

Female leader in the 2021 workplace

There are fewer women in the workforce right now than there were in 1987. And within the past year, specifically, we’ve seen a mass exodus — 3 million women have left the U.S. workforce, many citing the impossible demands of juggling child care with working at home. 

The effect the pandemic has had on women in the workforce is staggering. Especially because, in early 2020, women's representation on the top rungs of the corporate ladder was on the rise. McKinsey reports that, between January 2015 and December 2019, the number of women in senior VP positions increased from 23 to 28%, while women's representation in the C-suite climbed from 17 to 21%. Not great strides, but positive, forward progress. Last year, all of that changed.

Why women left

In short, it was the stress of juggling child care or elder care with their job responsibilities that forced women to leave their careers. 

In March 2021, McKinsey analyzed why women left the workforce in such great numbers over the previous year, and who, specifically, those women were. They found working mothers, women in senior management, and Black women experienced the largest challenges during the pandemic. Of those, women with children under 10 years old considered leaving — or left — the workforce at a rate 10 times higher than men.

They also found women reported feeling pressured, exhausted, and burned out much more than their male counterparts.

That wasn't news to McKinsey, which found as early as the summer of 2020, that women's jobs were more vulnerable to the pandemic than men's. It's also not news to women with children, who have had to juggle Zoom meetings, work projects, and other job responsibilities with monitoring their children’s online learning, homework, and mental health.

Many women spent exhaustingly long days as a de facto teacher, homework monitor, referee, chef, housekeeper, and activity director — all while trying to focus on their careers. They used evening hours to answer emails and catch up on work. Not to mention, many also had the added stress of providing or coordinating care for elderly parents during the pandemic.

It was just too much; but HR leaders can change that.

Now what?

Getting women back into the workforce in the post-pandemic world needs to be at the top of the list for HR executives. 

That's easier said than done, especially as we approach an extremely competitive hiring market. With demand rising, companies that laid off workers are now scrambling to hire. And with millions of women out of the workforce, hiring top talent just got a whole lot more difficult.

The solution? Employers need to bring their ‘A’ game in terms of job responsibilities, salaries, and benefits — and that starts with fixing the problems that sent women out of the workforce en masse.

In other words, offer support in the form of child and elder care.

Child care benefits are a must

Finding reliable child care has long been a mission critical for working parents. As Boomers age, elder care is becoming just as important, and care options need to be flexible enough to accommodate the changing needs of the workforce. Right now, these benefits are critical, as companies nationwide get back to work and define their "new normal” workplace. Nobody knows quite what it will look like, but whether your employees are working at home, in the office, or a mixture of the two, they need solid child care in order to focus 100% on their jobs.

As industries ramp up to meet growing demand, hiring the best people and getting the millions of women back into the workforce is vital. Child care benefits aren't just nice-to-have perks — they're the cornerstone of success for working families and the companies that employ them.

Whether you're providing on-site child care, emergency back-up care for employees with last-minute care needs, elder care that keeps employees’ loved ones safe during the workday, or subsidies for child care tuition, you’re giving your employees peace of mind and making their lives less stressful so they are free to devote their time and energy to their jobs.

At Bright Horizons, we're deeply committed to finding solutions that will bring women back to the workforce. To learn more, watch our webinar, Recruiting Tomorrow’s Women Leaders: Secrets of Successful Companies. Panelists Sandra Evers-Manly, VP of Global Corporate Responsibility at Northrop Grumman and President of the Northrop Grumman Foundation, Lilly Wyttenbach, Managing Director at JPMorgan Chase, and Christine Michel Carter discussed the state of women in the workforce today, and where we go from here. Not to be missed!

Women in the 2021 workplace webinar graphic

On-Demand Webinar - Recruiting & Retaining Female Talent: Secrets of Successful Companies

Hear from prominent HR and corporate responsibility thought leaders, each with direct experience building and launching sustainable paths to female career development.

Written by: Maribeth Bearfield

July 14, 2021

About the Author

Maribeth Bearfield at Bright Horizons

Maribeth Bearfield joined Bright Horizons in 2017 as SVP, HR and Chief Human Resources Officer. Maribeth brings a background as an educator and more than 25 years of human resources experience to her writing. Prior to joining Bright Horizons, Maribeth served as CHRO at Kaseya Corporation and Hanover Insurance, and as Chief Talent Officer at State Street. Maribeth has also held positions at Cisco Systems, Oracle and GTE.