Article main image
Sep 24, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As the new school year has kicked off, the rapid decline of women in the workforce will have significant ramifications on our economy, shining a spotlight on the implications of archaic workplace practices and policies from a bygone era.

A recent study by the U.S. Current Population Survey found that working mothers “reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers, increasing the gender gap in work hours by 20% to 50%.” 

In other words, women are being edged out of the workforce and forced to choose between tending to their children’s education needs or going to work. Prior to COVID-19, women accounted for over 50% of the U.S. workforce. However, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests a significant decline.

Yet top economists and business leaders agree that getting kids back into daycare and school is critical for economic recovery. If industries maintain a status quo working environment, women will feel compelled to leave the workforce and the U.S. will experience greater economic downturns. McKinsey estimates that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion less in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.

If we envision workplace alternatives that offer working women the opportunity to be caregivers and workers simultaneously, we wouldn’t need to be so concerned with getting kids back to school before our society is ready for it. 

What if we kill the 9-to-5 workday? What if companies focus on employee outcomes not by the hours people put in but by redefining what it means to be productive and how to measure that productivity? What if the value of your work isn’t based on the amount of time you sit in a cubicle or office?

Employers must evolve to end the archaic 9-to-5 workweek originally put in place by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to address the needs of the American manufacturers. The infusion of technological advancements and greater connectivity has now given employees limitless options to work from anywhere at any time in synchronous and asynchronous ways. Companies unwilling to innovate and evolve will face a workforce fallout, specifically from working women who need greater flexibility. We need to call on employers and policymakers to swiftly think about innovative solutions and policy changes to meet employees’ changing expectations and thereby diminish likely long-term negative workforce and economic consequences.

Study after study indicates that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts. But remote work is not enough. Companies should also enable people to work flexible hours so that:

  • Employees can focus on deep work and do not have to be distracted with every email or message that comes in.
  • They can better collaborate across varying locations and time zones where decisions can be automatically recorded to provide greater transparency and accountability.
  • They have greater flexibility to communicate in higher-quality conversations and are not impeded by variations in working schedules, improving inclusiveness and connectedness in the workforce culture.

In this construct, working women will have the flexibility to manage their schedule to best blend their work-life responsibilities. This in turn will allow companies to attract and retain top talent. Meanwhile, employers that require greater real-time engagements to accomplish their mission could employ remote synchronous working pods that operate together at a distance virtually and have dedicated schedule overlaps.

As the pandemic-induced shutdown has proved in so many areas of our lives, there is no one-size-fits all solution, especially when escaping the conventional workday. Some service and industry sectors will have no option but to provide core work options, which will result in women shifting to industries that offer more flexible alternatives, if not leaving the workplace entirely.

Nonetheless, to improve gender equality, we must act and prove that we mean business about business opportunities for working parents. Innovation, flexibility, creativity, opportunity — these are what will help parents remain employed and keep the economy moving forward.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.