Despite progress, women, especially mothers, are still fighting hard to achieve equality in the workforce. According to a 2022 Financial Health Network study, 70% of women with children under the age of 18 say they have made significant career changes due to parenting responsibilities, compared to just 55% of men. Those changes include reducing hours, taking a leave of absence, switching to a less demanding job, and quitting a job.
This career instability can have a significant impact on women’s short-term financial wellness, as well as their long-term net worth and future security. At the same time, women leaving the workforce because of work/life balance issues has been a contributing factor in the persistent labor shortage.
One way employers can help women regain ground —- and help solve hiring and retention issues — is to tailor benefits to better fit their needs, priorities, and concerns. Companies that offer benefits packages that help address the gender gaps in financial wellness not only help women stay and advance in the workplace, but also promote a more equitable and productive workforce.
The Great “She-Cession”
Women were struggling with work/life balance and workplace inequities well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the crisis brought these issues into stark relief. According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, more than 2.3 million women left work during the 12 months ending in February 2021 compared with 1.8 million men.
Indeed, the pandemic-generated recession was quickly dubbed a “she-cession,” as more women than men left or lost their jobs compared to previous recessions.
Why were women so disproportionately affected? One reason is that many women work in hospitality, education, healthcare, retail, and other industries that were severely impacted by the pandemic. Another is that, as schools shut down, women were often the ones who pulled back from working in order to focus on the care and “Zoom schooling” of their children.
While many women have since returned to the workforce, the recovery has been uneven. Issues like resume gaps, the fact that women typically earn less than men, coupled with the persistent lack of affordable childcare continue to take a toll on the financial well-being of female workers.
What Employers Can Do
HR pros have been working on evening gender disparity for decades, and much progress has been made. But the pandemic shed new light on the stubborn underlying inequities that continue to burden employers and female employees alike.
Employers may find that making adjustments and additions to their benefits packages can help promote more gender equity at work while also allowing them to attract and retain top female talent. Here are some strategies you may want to consider.
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Rethink Maternity Leavepaid parental leave your firm can offer, generally the better. Some companies are expanding leave for birthing parents beyond 12 weeks, offering as much as 26 weeks. Others are providing additional weeks of paid leave to parents of newborns who spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit.
A generous paid parental leave program not only helps attract female workers but also increases the likelihood that your existing women employees will return to their jobs after having or adopting a child, as opposed to dropping out of the workforce —- and leaving you with a new opening to fill.
Another question to consider is whether your parental leave policies apply to all types of families and parents, such as non-birth mothers, foster parents, and parents who use surrogates. Parental benefits provide an opportunity for building your inclusive benefits strategy.
Create Real Opportunities for Advancement
For every 100 entry-level men promoted to management, only 87 women are promoted, according to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workforce 2022 report. With little room for advancement and undervalued work, many women are leaving their employers for better opportunities elsewhere.
One way to counter this trend is to offer female employees a path to advancement through education and up-skilling/re-skilling opportunities. You might do this by offering tuition assistance programs and/or access to free (or discounted) training and certification programs. This can help female employees get ahead in their careers, earn more and, in turn, achieve greater financial stability. It can also propel women into the roles of the future where they are currently underrepresented, like data science, software development, and engineering.
Other initiatives that can improve female career mobility include: formal mentorships, sponsorships, women’s employee resource groups (ERGs), leadership circles, and career coaching workshops. If your company offers these programs, you’ll want to make sure women employees know about and have easy access to them.
Address the Childcare Crisis
When child-care centers shut down during the pandemic, nearly one-third of workers left the industry. Despite the post-pandemic reopening of offices, schools, and other businesses, employment in the childcare sector has not fully bounced back. That translates into many parents, especially moms at lower income levels, staying out of or exiting the workforce simply because they cannot find affordable childcare.
Employers can help fill the gap in several ways. On-site childcare is the most accommodating benefit. But on-site care is a big investment of infrastructure and resources that realistically only a small group of major employers can provide.
One alternative is to offer some type of emergency or backup child care support. Some companies do this by partnering with local daycare facilities and providing access to free or discounted childcare when a regular provider falls through. Other firms are offering employees stipends for online services, such as Care.com and SeekingSitters.com, that provide access to sitters at short notice.
Being open to and evaluating childcare support as you encourage your employees to come back to the office can be just the prompt reluctant employees need to embrace reentry.
Many employers are dealing with labor shortages. At the same time, there is a large pool of untapped talent among women who have fully or partially left the workforce. Many of those women want to return to work but find the gaps in their resumes and lack of current skills are holding them back.
To address both problems at once, some companies are offering “returnships.” Pioneered by finance leaders Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, these are internship programs that give returning caregivers the opportunity to brush up their skills or learn new ones. Returnships typically run for a few months, offering training, experience, and networking opportunities to workers – often mothers – who’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period of time.
Returnship programs not only give women who dropped out of the workforce a viable onramp, they also give employers a way to vet talent before making an official hire.
Address Student Debt
Student loan debt impacts nearly 43 million Americans and a disproportionate number are female. According to EducationData.org, women hold nearly 60% of all outstanding student debt and, despite making higher payments than men, take an average of two years longer to pay off their student loans. Female borrowers are also more likely than their male peers to have student loan debt from graduate school.
Student debt can have a negative impact on any employee’s financial (and overall) well-being. And right now, borrowers are feeling particularly uneasy, thanks to unknowns surrounding the return to repayment for federal loans and potential loan forgiveness. What is certain, though, is that student loan repayment benefits continue to grow in popularity and effectiveness. And, they may be particularly beneficial to female employees.
HR leaders will also want to keep in mind that employers can offer up to $5,250 in tax-exempt student loan repayment benefits through 2025, thanks to the CAREs Act of 2020. What’s more, the recent passage of the SECURE Act 2.0 allows companies to provide employees with a match on their retirement plans for making student loan payments starting in 2024. This can be a stand-alone offering, or part of a broader employee benefits program.
Offer Flexible, Women-Friendly Financial Wellness Benefits
Only one in five working-aged women are considered financially healthy versus nearly one in three working-aged men, according to the Financial Health Network’s 2022 report. The study also showed that women lag behind men in emergency and retirement savings. Only 42% of working-age women said they were confident they will have enough money to live off of in retirement, versus more than half of working-age men (53%).
High levels of debt, trouble making ends meet, worries about saving enough for the future (particularly with gaps in employment), all add a disproportionate amount of stress on women. Financial stress can impact every aspect of women’s lives, including productivity and happiness at work.
HR pros can make a huge impact on women employees by offering personalized, adaptive wellness benefits, such as debt management, emergency savings, tuition savings, retirement planning programs, and financial education. These benefits can help female employees plan and save for the future, feel less stressed about their finances, increase their focus and productivity on the job, and, importantly, change their financial lives for the better.
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Women are a vital part of any employer’s workforce. Benefits packages designed to address women’s specific needs can help employers attract and retain talented female employees. They can also help guarantee women, especially moms, have access to an equal playing field and a secure financial future.
SoFi at Work offers employers the benefits platform, education resources, and financial counseling that can help you assemble packages that help you increase employee productivity, loyalty, and overall well-being.
Photo credit: iStock/jacoblund
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