While the pandemic took its toll on many working Americans, women — particularly working mothers and women of color — were disproportionally impacted.
A more encouraging sign: In 2021, almost twice as many women joined the workforce as did men, signaling a major step in their employment recovery. Even with those recent gains, women may still face significant personal and professional challenges that can hinder their success at work. Studies show they have greater financial insecurity about the future, shoulder the bulk of caregiver responsibilities for children and older loved ones, and perhaps not surprising, are more burned out than their male counterparts.
As a result, many businesses and institutions are taking a hard look at changes they can make to welcome women back into the workforce and help them stay employed. That means reviewing compensation, recruitment efforts, professional development opportunities and a company’s culture at large.
In addition, these developments strengthen the argument for versatile workplace benefits that recognize and address the needs of the “whole person.”
Creating a More Women-Friendly Workplace
What benefits do employees — and women employees in particular — value most? In a word, flexibility. Beyond benefit staples like healthcare and retirement plans, having an ability to work remote or hybrid, more flexible work hours and paid/unpaid time off are growing in importance, largely to support work-life balance.
Greater work-life balance topped the list of what women considered most important in looking for a new job, at 66% — ahead of compensation and benefits. Importantly, the lack of flexibility at work was a top reason women left the workforce, according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey & Lean In.
To appeal to female workers, companies need to be intentional in how they restructure how they work, Gallup’s Kristin Barry told the Washington Post. “Jobs across the organization need to be restructured,” she said, “so flexibility and work-life integration become ingrained in the company culture.”
Adopting a “whole person” approach to benefits typically focuses on supplementing traditional offerings with benefits that help alleviate stress, whatever the source of that stress may be. And it’s no passing fad. Seventy-six percent of employees agree or strongly agree that employers have a responsibility for the health and well-being of their employees.
Based on the needs of their specific employee population, employers may consider adding to their benefits portfolio features like health and well-being programs, telehealth therapy, EAPs and financial wellness perks. Lifestyle programs may extend to caregiver support, identity protection, legal plans and pet insurance as well.
Addressing Key Stressors with Lifestyle Benefits
Here are a few additional examples of how employers can support women in the workforce by offering benefits that can be tailored to two critical areas of need: caregiving and financial well-being.
- Caring for the caregiver. Running a household while also employed is a challenge many women face. Whether it’s caring for young children, elderly parents or infirmed loved ones, women make up the majority of caretakers in the United States, both in an informal and formal capacity. Women of color are more likely to be caregivers. Fifty percent of Black women care for an aging family member. On average, Latinx women spend 30 hours a week on caregiving and 44% of their income on caregiving expenses, for example.
Caregivers that lack adequate support experience decreased productivity, greater absenteeism and increased attrition. If those working caregivers are middle-aged (50-plus), these added responsibilities reduced women’s paid work hours by 41%. As a mother of four children, I can empathize with women who have to take countless hours off work to care for others.
More employers are starting to view caregiving through a broader lens and either offer, or plan to offer, paid leave covering an expanded set of caregiving relationships. In addition, companies may add benefits like resources that help find childcare or elder care, including emergency or back up care, as well as legal assistance to empower them to handle those added responsibilities. Some legal plans include ancillary services that help members find the best living situation for aging loved ones, whether at home, in assisted living or at specialized care facilities.
- Facing financial insecurity. Since women are more likely to reduce their work hours or take a break from their careers to care for a child or family member, that time away from work generally means less ability to save, including saving for retirement. No wonder financial concerns put a major strain on mental health. Almost half of women identify bills and expenses as one of their top two sources of stress, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Young women (18-30), who are in the formative stages of their professional lives, echo that sentiment. While financial security and stability rank as their top two priorities in life, nearly two-thirds of them report feeling financially insecure.
So, what can employers do to alleviate this stressor? Beyond a retirement plan and disability insurance, offering financial education and counseling, help with student debt repayment, payroll advances or emergency savings accounts (ESAs) can go a long way in helping employees regain their financial footing.
Legal matters can quickly become significant financial issues. Research shows that many people fail to pursue a potential legal matter because they’re worried about how much an attorney is going to cost. In fact, 80% of Americans can’t afford an attorney. Having cost-effective access to legal counsel through legal insurance to help protect their assets and interests can bring employees greater peace of mind.
Women in the workforce continue to demonstrate resilience in the face of challenges. Smart employers strive to create the right work environment and provide the added flexibility and lifestyle benefits these women need to succeed in their return to the workplace.
About the Author
Lisa Wolf is the director of people and culture at ARAG Legal Insurance.