International Women’s Day 2022

By Laura Baldwin
March 8, 2022

“America’s job machine is going stronger than ever,” President Biden said in a speech at the White House on Friday, February 4, 2022, after what was considered a very strong January jobs report. “America is back to work.”

For America’s men, that’s true. But women have yet to be propelled back into the workforce by the American job machine. And the disparities are striking.

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  • The January 2022 jobs report found that 275,000 women left the workforce last month, leaving the women’s workplace participation rate at 57%—a rate that prepandemic hadn’t been seen since 1988, according to Fortune. By comparison, Axios reports, the men’s labor force participation rate was up to 70% in January.
  • CNBC noted that over 1 million men joined the labor force in January 2022, compared to just 39,000 women. That means less than 4% were women.
  • That same CNBC report stated there are nearly 1.1 million fewer women in the labor force now compared to February 2020, while men have now recouped all their job losses since the pandemic began.

The numbers get worse for women of color in the US. Per SHRM, in January 2022 3.6% of all women were jobless—but nearly 5% of Latinas and nearly 6% of Black women were unemployed. If you include individuals who are no longer looking for work, those percentages jump to 5.4% and 7.3%, respectively.

And it’s not solely an American issue. The International Labour Organization reported that globally women’s employment dropped by 4.2% between 2019 and 2020, compared with 3% for men. And projections made in the report (published July 2021) suggested that in 2021 there would still be 13 million fewer women in employment compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to 2019 levels.

Why it’s happening

While you can find dozens upon dozens of articles detailing this stark disparity, far fewer publications are willing to delve into why it’s happening. The data isn’t quite so cut-and-dried as are the hard employment numbers, which makes many agencies leery of reporting on it. Pew Research gave it a go, arguing that while the circumstances are complex, “there seems to be a consensus that [the gender employment disparity] partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation, and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic.”

Upheavals in employment roles where women have historically been overrepresented likely do play a part. But it’s important to realize these effects are felt throughout the workforce.

First off, it’s important to look at the pay gap as a major contributor to the problem. It hasn’t improved much during the pandemic, with the above Pew Research article reporting women earned 86% of what men did in the third quarter of 2021. (It was estimated at 85% two years ago.) Until there’s equal pay for equal work across all industries, there will always be large numbers of disenfranchised women who are ready to leave their job for a better-paying one or drop out of the workforce altogether. There’s a saying among women in the workforce that they have to do twice the work for half the recognition. Add to that 14% less pay and one can imagine why walking away is an option.

Historical and cultural gender roles in the home have also exacerbated the situation. The pandemic has led to increased stress for all parents, but the societally accepted role of women as caregiver has placed more of the burden on them. The AP reported that 42% of women said they felt burned-out this year (up from 32% in 2020), compared to 35% of men (up from 28% in 2020). The result? One in three women over the past year have thought about leaving their jobs or “downshifting” their careers—up from one in four at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s gotten worse.

The full-time job of caring for children and/or elderly parents combined with the rigors of full-time employment (or having to work several jobs to make ends meet) has become too much for many women. Ask any working mother and you’ll find it’s nothing new. Women have felt this pressure since joining the workforce, and I speak from personal experience. But opting out of the workforce is a tough (and sometimes impossible) choice. Unlike middle-class households in the mid-20th century, who could often afford to live on a single salary, most of today’s parents must both work to provide for their families—not to mention get ahead, build a savings, and be able to someday retire.

The pressure on women to care for their families has been amplified in this time of crisis. And because of the pay gap, childcare and elder care may cost more than the salary they’re bringing home. So it often makes more financial sense for the mother in a family to be the one to quit her job to care for her family. She’s likely already disenfranchised anyway, working harder and getting paid less than her male peers, so the decision to walk away is made even easier. Families make it work, but they’re likely unable to build their savings. And retirement is even less attainable.

When (and if) she’s able to return to the workforce, there’s now an employment gap in her résumé that may preclude her from being considered for a position. And if she’s considered, that gap must be explained. The employer’s concerns about her time away from the workforce—Is she up-to-date with today’s technologies? Are her skills antiquated?—may mean that she’s hired for lower pay than her counterparts who have worked continuously. And the lower-pay-for-equal-work cycle starts anew.

A four-day workweek isn’t the answer. More flexibility is.

I’m the president of O’Reilly—a SaaS company offering an online learning platform that organizations use to keep their teams ahead of fast-moving technologies. And I’m all too aware of the rarity of my position as a female president of a tech company. Tech is notorious for its underrepresentation of women in any part of its ranks, never mind among the senior leads. The situation is very slowly improving; Deloitte reports that globally, large technology firms on average will reach 33% female representation in 2022 (up two percentage points from 2019). Still, we’re half of the world’s population. So there’s quite a ways to go.

I’ve been approached for interviews recently that asked me for my thoughts on the four-day workweek as a solution to bringing women back into the workforce—and particularly back into tech. Prior to the pandemic, the thought of fewer hours at the office and a three-day weekend every week would’ve been considered a pipe dream. But a recent Gallup poll shows that American workers are now among the most stressed in the world, while another Gallup poll observed that “those working four-day weeks were found to have the highest rates of thriving and well-being (63%), compared with those working five (57%) or six days (56%).” So I can see why it’s being kicked around as a potential solution to de-stress our stressed-out workforce. I’ve done the research myself as we evaluate a four-day workweek for O’Reilly.

The only problem is that it doesn’t immediately address the real issues that women are facing today. For the working woman making 14% less money than her male counterpart but feeling she has to work twice as hard—and feeling more pressure than ever before to care for her family—longer weekends aren’t going to make a dent in her everyday concerns.

And for companies, which day do you take off? Monday? But what if some of your clients take Fridays off instead or your customers don’t adopt a four-day week? And what if your country mandates a certain day off but you do business internationally and other countries don’t? A four-day workweek complicates your business model without generating the solutions women need to be successful at work.

What she needs is flexibility. And for her organization to understand that she’s a responsible adult, dedicated to the success of both her company and her family.

At O’Reilly, it’s always been in the DNA of the company to hire and promote women. 44% of our workforce today are women—well above the US tech industry average of 28.8%, per the institute. And our percentage of women in leadership roles at the director level or above is 42%. We’ve actually increased our percentage of women employees during the pandemic, and that’s while the organization’s been in a phase of significant hiring.

It hasn’t been easy to buck these trends—especially during a pandemic that has exacerbated the situation for most organizations. I give credit to our approach of providing flexibility while making clear that our employees should always put their families first. Allowing all employees—not just women—to be with their aging parents or children during daylight hours has always been the cornerstone of our leadership at O’Reilly. It came from the hard lessons learned while I worked my way up in my own career for other organizations, where 10 hours in the office was not only accepted but expected.

But O’Reilly took that flexibility to another level during the pandemic. We’ve gone fully remote. 2020 proved that we could successfully drive our business without being in the office—so much so that we shuttered our Boston location in favor of working remotely. We’ve given each employee one-time and monthly support to build and maintain their home office. And we’ve given them the tools, technology, and trust to excel at their jobs.

While we all miss saying hello around the coffee maker, what we’ve heard from our teams has been overwhelmingly positive. Commute times have been reduced to zero, where before employees would spend hours a day in traffic—the epitome of lost productivity. Caregiver costs are reduced (if not gone altogether) as parents no longer have to pay for before- and after-school care. Employees are able to make it to school plays and parent-teacher conferences, get their parents to doctor appointments, or just take their dogs for a walk with minimal time away from their work. And when they do have to be away from their desks during the day, they’ve proven to make up for it on their own time. Their quality of life has improved.

And the cost to the company? Zero. In fact, we’re saving money over the next several years in commercial space rent. But on top of that, our productivity has soared. We’ve experienced 36% growth from 2019 through the end of 2021. And, as noted above, the percentage of women employees at O’Reilly has increased compared to before the pandemic.

All because we provided them the flexibility and support they’ve needed to get through what’s been one of the most challenging times in our lives.

Putting our money where our mouth is

According to a 2021 McKinsey report, acting now to improve gender equity could add $13 trillion to the global GDP by 2030. That’s trillion, with a “t.” There’s so much to be done to make it happen. At O’Reilly, we’re working hard to do our part.

O’Reilly’s mission is to spread the knowledge of innovators. We do that by finding the best and brightest voices on today’s most relevant technical topics and bring them to market through our products and platform. For the past year we’ve focused on elevating voices from historically marginalized communities and other groups with talent to share who are underrepresented in our current mix of trainers, writers, and thought leaders—and in tech that includes women. In 2020, 30% of O’Reilly experts identified as a member of an underrepresented community. So our goal in 2021 was to advance that number a full 10 percentage points higher, to 40%. We achieved that goal—and for 2022 we’ve increased our goal to 43%.

We also targeted that 40% of our 2021 new hires would come from underrepresented communities (we achieved 51%). And because one of the basic levers that has always worked against women in tech is young girls falling out of STEM at an early age, we’ve awarded 500 scholarships for annual memberships on our platform to help offset that.

And we’ve armed our teams with the tools, technologies, and flexibility to advance their skills and careers. We’re seeing boosted morale. But in these trying times, we’re also challenging ourselves to approach work with an innovation mindset. And that’s essential to stay ahead of the competition and create an environment that sparks excitement and opportunities for growth.

The work is never done. And as leaders we all need to make bringing women back into the workforce a priority. But it doesn’t stop when you hire them. Give them the flexibility they need to control their own destiny, provide the tools to help them excel, and always make sure you apply the concept of equal pay for equal work. That’s how we’ll solve gender inequity in the workplace—and it won’t just help women. It will create a better world for everyone.

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