US companies have serious work to do to heal the US female workforce that has been so badly fractured by the COVID-19 pandemic. And although it may be tempting to turn to traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, those programs were not designed to address the current challenges.
DEI programs have long been the corporate “home” for strategically driving better outcomes for women. They tend to focus on eliminating discriminatory behaviors, achieving workplace equity, and increasing the representation of women in leadership positions. Complementary human-resources policies and benefits have also aimed to level the playing field and nurture high-potential talent on the path to the executive suite.
These programs and policies are insufficient to solve the wide-scale attrition and hiring difficulties of the so-called great resignation. As the pandemic unfolded, the soaring demands of work and home strained women’s roles as primary caregivers in most families. Even as of November 2021, women’s participation in the workforce remained at a 33-year low. The great resignation forced a reckoning among all employees, not just mothers, and not just women. In November 2021, 4.5 million workers quit or changed jobs—the fourth time in 2021 that the number of workers quitting set a record.
As we look forward to a post-pandemic workplace, strong signals suggest that workforce challenges will persist longer term. Recent surveys have found that only 35% of working mothers say that they are planning to work as they did before the pandemic. More than half of female knowledge workers have said that they are open to looking for a new job in the next year. Armed with new-found clarity about priorities and values, many women have fundamentally altered their expectations of their work, employers, and lives.