The state of women in the workplace

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women. Now many are demanding independence and flexibility

WeWork Samseong Station II in Seoul. Photographs by WeWork

Work by the Numbers is a deep-dive into the biggest trends, research and surveys in the world of work and real estate.

Two years after the start of the pandemic, women are facing new challenges in the workplace. Women’s labor force participation has struggled to recover from the impact of mass business and school closures that began in March 2020, and women remain underrepresented in management and leadership positions. One thing that has barely changed—in well over a decade—is the wage gap. Women continue to be underpaid compared to their male counterparts.

According to the Center for American Progress, women contribute $7.6 trillion to the annual U.S. GDP, and if every woman in the country skipped just one day of work, we would lose $21 billion in GDP. With women playing such a significant role at work and in the economy as a whole, there is much at stake when it comes to meeting their needs.

Despite both old and new constraints holding women back in the workplace, many are showing that they aren’t willing to settle for less. The great resignation has demonstrated that women are increasingly leaving workplaces that don’t support their needs. And more than ever before, women are starting their own businesses. Here’s what women are asking for from the workplace—and what businesses can do to support them.

Why are women leaving the workforce?

While men have returned to work at pre-pandemic levels, there were still more than 1.8 million fewer women working in January 2022 than there were in February 2020. This marks a continuation of a long-term trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor force participation among women reached 57.1 percent in February 2022, but this number remains down from a peak of 60.3 percent all the way back in April 2000. 

Increased family care responsibilities helped to explain why 3 million women left the workforce in 2020 and could potentially explain why many haven’t returned. Women generally take on a larger share of unpaid childcare labor than men do—and with the childcare crisis exacerbated by school and daycare closures in response to the pandemic, it was often women who gave up their jobs to care for their families. A June 2021 study by Indiana University Sociology Department found that gaps in job types, pay, and work hours led some mothers to cut back hours and prolong remote work so they could focus on childcare.

For every dollar a man earns, women on average earn less
All women
Black women
Hispanic women

The gender pay gap is another reason many women gave up their jobs so their male partners could keep theirs. On average, their male partners earned more. In 2020, according to Pew Research, women earned 84 percent of what men earned. That means the average woman would need to work an extra 42 days to earn what men did in 2020. The gender pay gap is even wider for women over 35 and non-white women. Black women made 64 cents for every dollar made by white men, multiracial women made 63 cents, and Hispanic women made 57 cents, according to a 2020 study by the Center for American Progress. Native American women were harder to survey, but 2019 data suggested they made 60 cents for every dollar earned by white men. 

What are women looking for at work?

While there’s a great deal of overlap between what women and men want out of work—better benefits and job stability, for example—there are also distinct areas of concern.

Inclusion and diversity 

In a recent survey of 13,000 U.S. employees conducted by Gallup in October 2021, 52 percent of women surveyed said they wanted to work for an organization that is diverse and inclusive—a full 23 percent more than men who wanted the same thing.

Work-life balance

Greater work-life balance was the number one priority among women, coming in as the first concern among 66 percent of women surveyed, 10 percentage points higher than men. One unfortunate irony is that research suggests men are viewed more favorably than women when asking for flexible work arrangements.

Meaningful work

While all survey respondents ranked increased income and better benefits the same, women were more likely to say they wanted to work for a company that allowed them to do work that they find meaningful—62 percent versus 53 percent of men. 

Growth opportunities

A report by McKinsey found that women are still less likely than men to become managers. For every 100 men promoted to management positions, only 86 women are. Many organizations have a history of expecting higher qualifications from women than they do from men. 

Women want to work for organizations that give them real opportunities to advance, according to the leadership development organization, Center for Creative Leadership. The McKinsey study found that women are more likely to turn down promotion opportunities, citing less confidence in their skills, uncertainty that they would be supported in a leadership position, and suspicion that they were being set up to fail. Women don’t just want token promotions, they want to feel confident that they’ll be supported. 

Pay equality

Across the board, all employees want a significant increase in income and benefits: 64 percent of the 13,085 U.S. employees surveyed by Gallup in January 2022 said this was very important, up from 41 percent in 2015. The persistent gender wage gap highlights how critical the issue of pay is for women. With all employees feeling pressure as the cost of living increases, women making less than their male coworkers are feeling an even tighter squeeze. 

A January 2021 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that equalizing the gender pay gap in 2019 would have added $500 billion to the U.S. GDP. The gender pay gap doesn’t just hold back the women who are being underpaid, it also places unnecessary stress on the broader economy. 

How some women are forging new career paths

As opportunities for advancement in the corporate world have proven elusive for women, it’s no wonder that some are striking out on their own. The number of self-employed women in the U.S. is back to pre-pandemic levels at 5.4 million in the second quarter of 2021, according to Pew Research

There are signs that women are making up an increasingly larger percentage of business applications. A survey of 4,000 online businesses in July 2021 by GoDaddy found that 57 percent of these businesses were started by women, versus 48 percent in March 2020.

The rapidly expanding creator economy is dominated by women. According to a report by the influencer marketing software Izea, women made up 83 percent of all influencer deals in 2021. But even in this independent space, the pay gap persists—with male creators earning an average of $2,978 per post despite making up only 15 percent of the industry, while female creators earned $2,289. Even more disheartening, this 30 percent gap in pay has actually widened in recent years. 

What companies are doing to bring about change

Local governments are exploring potential solutions to the gender pay gap, including mandating greater transparency from companies. New York City is requiring companies to include salary ranges in job listings starting in May 2022. Colorado, Nevada, Connecticut, California, Washington, and Maryland have similar laws, and Rhode Island will implement one in 2023. While it remains to be seen how effective these laws will be, a similar law in Denmark that passed in 2006 successfully reduced the gap by 7 percent in the short term. 

In March 2022, the U.S. federal government took steps to address the issue with executive orders that ban federal contractors from seeking applicant salary history (so as not to perpetuate existing gender pay disparities). The order also strengthens the ability to audit payrolls in order to identify wage disparities based on gender, race, or ethnicity. While it’s a small step, the hope is that these measures will chip away at the wage gap.

Performing transparent audits of salary numbers has already proved effective in the private sector. In 2007, L’Oréal conducted a gender pay gap analysis and published the results. Since then, they’ve continued to work with independent organizations to continuously audit their salaries. Currently, 46 percent of the company’s executives are female and their pay gap averages within 5 percent. 

Another major company prioritizing pay equality is General Motors. GM became the first U.S. car manufacturer to appoint a female CEO in 2014. Under CEO Mary Barra’s leadership, the company has taken on a number of workplace initiatives intended to even the career playing field, including offering flexible work hours and training bootcamps for female employees. Out of the company’s 13 board members, seven—a majority—are women. These efforts have paid off. Out of 44 companies to publish gender pay gap information, GM was the only company to report no gap between male and female employees in equivalent positions.

The pandemic forced many women to make hard choices between their career and their family responsibilities. Providing an office environment that allows employees the option of a hybrid work approach could be a helpful tool. With WeWork All Access and WeWork On Demand, employees can access hundreds of beautiful workspace locations all over the world that bring the office closer to their homes and offer the flexibility that’s essential to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.  

There are many hopeful signs that inequalities in the workplace are shrinking. While progress remains stubbornly slow in critical areas like equal pay for women of color and opportunities for advancement, more women than ever are leaving their current workplaces for better options. Between starting new businesses and demanding greater work-life balance, women are pushing back against the limitations of the past and placing greater value on independence and flexibility. As companies catch up, a better world of work for women is in sight. 

Bradley Little is a writer and content creator based in New York City.

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