Strategies to Retain Women Employees in the Workplace

As we commemorate the fourth anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this month, one of the notable workforce transformations witnessed was the departure—and eventual comeback—of women to the labor force.

As documented in a recent article on the employment and retention of women since 2020 by HRExecutive, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a noticeable impact on women's participation in the workforce, leading some experts to coin the term "She-cession." Women across the nation left their jobs in large numbers, mainly due to the disproportionate burden of caregiving responsibilities following pandemic-induced closures. Concurrently, industries predominantly staffed by women, such as hospitality, experienced significant job losses. Ultimately, 1.8 million women exited the workforce during the COVID era, as reported by the digital talent marketplace The Mom Project.

By January 2023, according to the Center for American Progress, American women's employment had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. The participation rate for prime-age women (25-54) now sits at 77%, surpassing the 2019 benchmark by a single percentage point.

While the statistics may paint a picture of success, experts caution that the journey is far from over. This Women’s History Month, as companies commemorate milestones like International Women’s Day and Equal Pay Day, HR leaders must acknowledge that women's expectations and challenges in the workforce in 2024 have significantly evolved from the pre-pandemic era.

Allison Robinson, founder and chairwoman of The Mom Project, highlights that while the adoption of flexible work arrangements post-pandemic offers a more level playing field for mothers, they are also grappling with challenges such as limited childcare options, mandatory return-to-office policies, and the looming specter of burnout. Furthermore, the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic has set back advancements in areas like pay equality and female representation in leadership roles—a gap that HR professionals must actively address.

These challenges serve as a clear indication to HR leaders that they need to harmonize all aspects, from benefits to company culture, in order to cater to the evolving needs and desires of women today. This alignment is crucial for cultivating a diverse and forward-thinking workforce for the future.

Flexibility is Key

According to Sadie Funk, the national director of The Best Place for Working Parents®, a leading national business network, the resurgence of women in the workforce post-pandemic can be attributed in part to the growing emphasis on flexibility. This organization recognizes and designates companies that prioritize innovative family-friendly benefits and policies, making them an attractive choice for returning female professionals.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports a threefold increase in the number of Americans granted access to remote work between 2019 and 2021. Despite the gradual implementation of return-to-office strategies by many employers, office attendance remains 30% lower than pre-pandemic levels, as highlighted by McKinsey & Co.'s analysis.

In today's dynamic work landscape, the synergy between workplace flexibility and family-friendly policies is paramount. Recent data reveals that 96% of organizations featured in the Best Place for Working Parents® list now offer flexible work schedules, a notable increase from the pre-pandemic rate of 94.5%. Moreover, 93% of these top-performing companies currently embrace remote work arrangements, showcasing a significant rise from 89% in the pre-pandemic era.

Funk reveals that employees at companies designated as Best Places for Working Parents® rate their workplaces as incredibly supportive, nearly 125 times more than those not on the list. Furthermore, organizations offering remote work options witness employees who are twice as motivated and experience double the number of positive health outcomes compared to those without access to remote work.

Cassandra Pratt, the Senior Vice President of People at Progyny, a company specializing in women's health benefits management, emphasizes how the pandemic has illuminated the advantages of flexibility for working parents.

“When people were able to work remotely and there was more flexibility, there became a real shift in how people thought about what used to be called work/life balance—and what’s now called work/life integration,” says Pratt. “People really started to reassess what we believe is important.”

This ongoing trend will shape women's career decisions, according to Funk. For example, she references a recent study revealing that 70% of women who exited the workforce during the pandemic expressed a desire to remain if provided with greater job flexibility.

Employers, under the guidance of HR, must navigate the delicate balance of creating a flexible work environment that aligns with both business needs and employee preferences. At Progyny, where 75% of the workforce is comprised of women, this has translated into implementing a hybrid work model, with employees present in the office from Tuesday to Thursday.

“You have to assess based on business needs, the needs for a particular role and what employees are craving,” says Pratt. “What is the right balance? If you push too hard in one direction or make too many assumptions, you could lose out on key talent.”

Offer Tailored Benefits

Experts emphasize that while a level of flexibility is essential for employers seeking to attract and retain women in today's workforce, it is just the beginning of what they must do to meet the evolving needs of female professionals.

Among the top 10 family-friendly benefits that companies designated as Best Place for Working Parents® offer include parental leave, benefits for nursing parents, and access to backup childcare. While only a small percentage (11%) currently provide on-site childcare facilities, this perk is expected to see significant growth among forward-thinking employers. Since 2019, the number of organizations offering on-site childcare has increased by 47%, with a retention rate that is 7.4 times higher than those without such facilities.

“We anticipate that policies, perks and benefits being implemented today are here to stay, as these have been proven to yield economic benefits for companies,” says Funk.

According to Pratt, the expansion of Progyny's workforce by over 40% in the past year was greatly influenced by the implementation of family-friendly benefits.

The company provides 16 weeks of primary caregiver leave and offers specialized programs for secondary caregiver responsibilities, pregnancy loss support, and NICU situations. Progyny originally focused on fertility benefits but has since expanded its offerings to encompass a wide range of women's health topics. Their internal benefits have also diversified, including programs that support women from fertility and preconception stages to maternity and postpartum care, as well as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) tailored to meet the needs of parents with diverse experiences.

Robinson emphasizes that taking a comprehensive approach is essential for maintaining the long-term retention of women in the workforce.

“Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “So, while good parental leave policies are important in the beginning of this journey, there are many other benefits and support needed once a parent returns to work and at each new stage of parenthood—childcare support, flexibility, career development and PTO.”

Progyny has also acknowledged the importance of providing benefits that cater to the diverse experiences of all female employees, not just limited to those with children. This recognition led to the introduction of menopause benefits to further support the well-being of their workforce.


“Menopause is one of those topics that every woman is going to go through at some point,” says Pratt. “Yet for so long, employers have disregarded the symptoms—which can be quite as severe as those of women going through fertility or pregnancy. You have to look at people across the whole spectrum, understand the demographics of your population, what’s important to them—and keep talking about it.”

Integrate a Culture of Inclusivity

Upon engaging with employees, it became evident to leadership that there was a demand for menopause benefits, as highlighted by Pratt. Additionally, other inclusions such as pet care support were identified, with Pratt pointing out their remarkable level of utilization.

“Not all women have small children at home—some are caring for parents, some are new to the workforce and looking for connections,” Pratt acknowledges. “You have to survey your population and truly understand what they need.”

According to Funk, conducting regular surveys is essential for implementing effective policies that boost retention and engagement. These surveys also play a crucial role in helping employers optimize the return on investment of these policy enhancements.

It is equally crucial to make sure that employees are well-informed about the benefits and resources at their disposal, she emphasizes.

“Many employers offer policies that their employees simply aren’t aware of, so making it a habit to check in with employees regularly is vital—whether that is through calls, emails, surveys or just anecdotal employee feedback,” says Funk.

Encouraging open communication about the supportive benefits available can also help diminish the stigma attached to utilizing them, as noted by Pratt. This can be particularly challenging when it comes to parental leave, as many parents—especially women—may hesitate to take their full time off, fearing it may impact their career growth within the company.

Progyny experienced this firsthand. Following the pandemic, company leadership took a strategic approach to enhance communication regarding their leave programs. Leaders and managers actively encouraged employees to utilize their full allotted time off, resulting in a significant increase in adoption rates.

To assist employers and their parent populations in navigating the complexities of parental leave, The Mom Project introduced its innovative "Maternityship" program, which has been met with enthusiastic reception, according to Robinson. This initiative involves collaborating with employers to ensure seamless coverage for employees during their leave period and developing a tailored strategy for their smooth reintegration into the workforce.

“The employee can take their leave with less stress and guilt of leaving a gap in their team,” Robinson says, “and it also provides a great way for moms who want to get back into the workforce in a very specific project-, time-based arrangement.”

In the absence of these critical supports, parents may find themselves pressured to pause their careers, with mothers being 114% more inclined than fathers to take a career break, as noted by Robinson.

The research conducted by The Mom Project revealed that 51% of surveyed parents expressed that transitioning to parenthood had a detrimental impact on their compensation, with half of them noting negative consequences on their career progression.

As part of their commitment to supporting their workforce, Progyny remains dedicated to providing opportunities for advancement even while employees are on leave. This ensures that all employees see that utilizing family-friendly benefits such as leave will not impede their professional growth, Pratt emphasizes.

In addition, the power of storytelling can be a valuable tool for employers to connect with their workforce. At Progyny, for example, their social media platforms are used to showcase the journeys of employees returning from or heading out on leave. These stories also highlight women excelling in traditionally male-dominated fields like finance and engineering, fostering a culture of inclusivity and empowerment within the organization.

These initiatives have the potential to reinvigorate the momentum for the advancement of women in the workforce, a progress that was hindered during the pandemic. Pratt emphasizes that achieving this goal requires business strategies rooted in empathy and understanding.

“Now that women are choosing to return to the workforce,” says Pratt, “they’re looking for employers to meet them where they are, where their true priorities are—not forcing them to sacrifice family for work.”

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