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Recruiting Women Back to the Workforce

Quick Look: It’s been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic closed offices across the country and the workplace is finally regaining a sense of normalcy. However, the rate at which women are re-entering the workforce has not recovered. Since February 2020, 1.1. million women who left their jobs haven’t returned. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s important to identify how employers can recruit these important employees back to the workforce.

March is Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture, and society. It’s also an opportune time to highlight their achievements and impacts on today’s workforce. Unfortunately, millions of women have exited the U.S. workforce since the beginning of the pandemic, many due to increased school, childcare, and other domestic responsibilities. In fact, at the height of the pandemic, women left the workforce at four times the rate of men.

Even as businesses reopened, things didn’t necessarily improve for working women. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the population of women participating in the workforce hasn’t been this low since the 1980s. And while the U.S. economy added 467,000 jobs in January, women only accounted for 39,000 of those gains. If left unaddressed, this mass exodus could set women’s professional progress back significantly.

Women who’ve stayed at their jobs aren’t faring incredibly well either. A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, found:

  • 45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings
  • One in five women say they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls
  • Three in five female employees say they feel like their prospects of getting a promotion are worse in their new remote work environment

At the same time, businesses of all sizes are struggling to find workers in today’s tight labor market. Recruiting women returning to the workplace could be a key strategy for businesses looking to attract candidates, while also helping to avoid the high costs of employee turnover. Here are five tips to recruit and support women returning to the workplace.

1. Welcome flexibility

Offering a flexible work environment is important for all companies looking to compete for talent. Pre-pandemic, many employees struggled to fit their personal lives into work schedules. Now, that trend has reversed. There are many reasons to implement a flexible working culture, and it can be mutually beneficial for employers and employees alike.

Flexibility looks different for every organization. It can mean a hybrid or completely remote environment, working varying hours to accommodate school, daycare, or caregiving schedules, offering part-time employment opportunities, or encouraging meetings to be held in a “prime time” window so all employees have a better chance of attending. For a parent or caregiver looking to return to the workforce, companies who boast a flexible workplace culture can stand out as an employer of choice.

2. Create a return-to-work program

It’s been notoriously difficult for candidates that have a gap in their work history to re-enter the workplace at the same level they left. Creating a structured return-to-work program designed specifically for women who have taken a career break can help provide a supportive infrastructure for these professionals coming back to the workforce.

On a large scale, in June 2021 Amazon entered 1,000 returning professionals into a paid 16-week return-to-work program, with the potential to land a permanent position at the program’s end. The company has a team dedicated to recruiting individuals who are restarting their careers, and instead of focusing on resume gaps or outdated skills, they focus on potential.

It can be very worthwhile for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to replicate this program. According to research by ManpowerGroup, 74% of female millennials anticipate taking a career break for childcare, eldercare, or to support a partner’s job. In other words, there are – and will be – countless working women looking to jump back into their careers, and return-to work programs can allow you to access this untapped talent pool, improve diversity, create a pipeline of female talent, and increase employee loyalty and morale.

It’s important to note that return-to-work programs typically fall into two categories – returnships and direct hire:

  • Returnships bring groups of people into the organization and typically run for 12, 16, or 24 weeks. Participants are given customized onboarding and orientation sessions, professional development opportunities, technical training, and access to mentors and senior leadership. Returnships have the potential to become full-time employment, but that’s not guaranteed.
  • A direct hire approach is when companies hire the participant full-time, right away, and they are provided with one-on-one coaching, online learning, and mentoring along the way.

3. Reskill and upskill employees

Another way to bring talented women into your organization is to reskill and upskill them.

By definition, reskilling is the process of learning new skills in order to do a completely different job, while upskilling is the process of learning new skills to expand upon someone’s current responsibilities. This can be a great way to help a woman returning to work polish her skills, or transition into a new career that interests her.

The business advantages of reskilling and upskilling are vast – you can better retain current employees, attract new talent, and grow institutional knowledge. In an ultra-competitive job market, it can give SMBs a leg up: job candidates want the opportunity to grow at an organization, and 94% of employees report they’d stay longer at a company if it invested in their careers.

For employers looking to reskill and upskill their talent, mentorships could be the way to go. Designed to support and encourage learning, mentorships involve a senior employee offering knowledge and advice to a more junior employee. As a woman returns to the workforce, a mentor can not only teach her new skills but also introduce her to key personnel and company leadership, helping pave her path to success.

4. Commit to being inclusive of women

Having a woman-friendly workplace isn’t something you can achieve by checking a few tasks off a list – it’s a full-time, ongoing commitment.

Employers can embark on this journey by creating policies and programs designed to support female employees like:

  • A pandemic leave of absence: While (fingers crossed) the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, it can speak volumes to working women if their employers implement a special pandemic leave of absence policy. This can involve unpaid time off – but with the continuation of benefits – and at the end of the leave should include guaranteed employment at the same level and salary (not necessarily the same job, however). Knowing that your employer will have your back when the unexpected strikes is priceless.
  • Diversified candidate pipelines: Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) starts from the ground up. SMBs should ensure their candidate pipelines are equitable and unbiased. A tool like ExtensisHR’s DEI Dashboard simplifies this process by helping evaluate hires from previous years, and providing real-time data regarding pay equity, salary trends across both race and gender demographics, employee turnover, promotions, and more.

5. Break the stigma of career breaks

The stigma against career breaks has been around for years, but with many women returning to the workforce following a pandemic-induced pause, it’s time to actively fight it.

Unfortunately, those with gaps on their resume have a 45% lower chance of receiving interviews, but luckily there are ways for employers to take a stand and make a change.

SMB leaders can encourage women to be open about their time away from work on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and during interviews.  This can be as direct as telling women that they don’t discriminate against those who took time off, and recruiters and hiring managers should eliminate their bias against career gaps and instead focus on the candidate’s skills, potential, and prior experience.

Breaking the stigma is becoming a common goal. For example, LinkedIn has taken a stance at normalizing career breaks by adding 13 new career break profile options including:

  • Bereavement
  • Career transition
  • Caregiving
  • Full-time parenting
  • Gap year
  • Layoff/position eliminated
  • Health and well-being
  • Personal goal pursuit
  • Professional development
  • Relocation
  • Retirement
  • Travel
  • Voluntary work

Giving women a seat at the table

It’s clear the pandemic has taken a toll on working women – and employers can make the process of bringing them back to the office easier by partnering with a professional employer organization (PEO). A PEO, like ExtensisHR, offers:

  • Recruiting specialists who have a fair, unbiased hiring approach
  • Dedicated HR experts who ensure compliant policies and procedures
  • Assistance with creation of learning and development programs
  • Access to inclusive benefits and an employee assistance program (EAP)
  • A DEI Dashboard tool that employers can use to compare detailed data about pay equity, promotions, and more

If you’re looking for guidance on recruiting women back into your business, contact the experts at ExtensisHR today.

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