Can Technology Help Bring Women Back to the Workforce?

As women face unprecedented job losses across a range of industries, an emerging crop of software platforms, tools, and interventions could reshape workplace norms.
Mar 24, 2021 4:35 PM ET
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Visual artist Ashley Cecil’s professional life was upended when schools closed. The 39-year-old mother of two, who earns less than her husband, says it was clear she’d be the one to scale back. Cecil dropped teaching engagements and began renting out her Pittsburgh studio. “When push came to shove,” she says, “there was just no question that I was going to be ... the default parent until we could figure out some solution.” 

She’s not the only one. The pandemic’s economic fallout has thrust working women like Cecil into a tenuous juggling act. Nearly 2.2 million women left the US workforce between February and October, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center. In December alone, the US economy lost 140,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s jobs comprised all of these losses. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women’s employment, with the number of working women dipping to levels not seen since the early 1990s. 

Decades of hard-fought gains are eroding: “We’re at such a risk of 20 or 25 years of progress rolling backward,” says Anneliese Olson, HP’s GM and global head, Print Category. Olson previously was the executive sponsor for the HP Women’s Network in Singapore and a leader of the Boise Women’s Network, and she currently mentors women formally and informally inside and outside HP.

Globally, women comprise 39% of employment but more than 50% of overall pandemic job losses last year, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. This recession slammed industries where women are heavily employed, such as retail, hospitality, food services, and government—as opposed to industries where men hold the most jobs, including construction and transportation. Loss of child care and home care for aging relatives sidelined many women, who manage a greater share of household responsibilities in two parent heterosexual households. 

Interventions like added flexibility, remote work, and condensed workweeks have helped some women keep working. An emerging crop of technologies could further stem this wave of departures. Experts say the pandemic is expediting innovation because the need for solutions has been felt universally. “What’s different this time is that it affects women across occupations, across sectors, across class. We’re all struggling with the same thing, and it’s not us. It’s the system,” says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). This moment “requires a reimagining of how we understand women in the workforce,” she says.

Mainstreaming remote work solutions and software

Flexible work arrangements let women regain control over their time, making it easier to manage both their work and home-care responsibilities. As the pandemic forced many office workers to stay home, workplaces mainstreamed existing “asynchronous” communication tools to support their remote staff. Slack helps workers across time zones communicate efficiently, for example, while Asana allows remote teams to organize projects. Calendly helps colleagues across locations schedule virtual meetings, and systems like Gusto streamline payroll processes for small businesses.

Making virtual meetings accessible — an accommodation originally introduced for employees with disabilities — helps reduce required meetings while keeping parents up to speed on flexible schedules, says Deb Dagit, a disability and inclusion expert. Recording meetings that don’t require participation and creating transcripts with services such as OtterRev, and Caption First lets workers consume information on their own time, whether after their kids’ bedtimes or before school. 

Virtual child care and other tools

Cecil has continued working part-time from a studio in her basement, typically at night. When she’s needed to work during the day, she has turned to Flexable, a virtual backup child-care service. Her seven-year-old son engaged with a caregiver over video chat while she priced a commission—and those 30 uninterrupted minutes provided the focus needed to complete the sale. 

Creative child-care solutions have been a key piece of the puzzle to keep mothers working because “everybody felt this, whether they were an hourly worker or the CEO of a major organization,” says Priya Amin, CEO and cofounder of Flexable. “There were eyes on child care in a way that there haven’t been since World War II.” 

Many businesses are also seeking to deploy interventions and retooled benefits, such as increased child care subsidies or special leave for parents. Caregiver resource groups allow employees to swap tips for homeschooling and provide a forum to share experiences, while remote benefits can be redesigned to incorporate services tailored to specific pandemic stressors. Employee assistance programs could include resources for virtual tutors with experience supporting neurodiverse students, says Dagit, as managing remote schooling for the estimated one in five children with learning disabilities would aid working parents.

In another initiative, some employers have ushered in Friday afternoons without meetings, says Matt Krentz, the diversity, equity, and inclusion and leadership chair at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Others have also provided staff with mental health apps like Headspace and Calm as part of their tool kit to manage working from home. Importantly, employers are focusing on results rather than face time, a culture shift that benefits women.

Fighting bias with data and AI

As employers make permanent changes to the workplace, measuring longitudinal outcomes will be paramount. Surveys should go beyond typical metrics like retention to track employee sentiment and caregiver status. “Any talent decision — reviews, promotions, layoffs if those happen — should factor in longer-term performance and future potential,” says Krentz. Employers also should monitor for biases against caregivers and track outcomes by gender. 

Companies hiring workers can leverage AI that incorporates unconscious bias testing so that older women or those with résumé breaks aren’t screened out. Krentz points to the platform PredictiveHire as an example of how data can promote equity. Candidates interview via text with PredictiveHire’s automation, and this blind assessment (which uses natural language processing and machine learning) is designed to filter out bias. 

Other tools like Textio help recruiters write inclusive job descriptions by monitoring tone and gender bias, while the platform Eightfold masks specific personal information so hiring managers see only skills and qualifications. 

“Returnship programs” from career reentry firms like iRelaunch help mothers reenter the workforce. Its STEM Re-Entry Task Force targeting women with engineering experience was designed to boost female representation in engineering while addressing the projected shortage of technical talent. Early partners of the task force included Booz Allen Hamilton, General Motors, and Intel.

Retraining and upskilling

Given the estimated worldwide gap of 85 million skilled workers by 2030, retraining could prepare women for jobs of the future, and businesses taking the long view will reap benefits. Women can gain from efforts targeted toward fast-growing sectors like cybersecurity — projected to have 3.5 million open jobs globally this year — and educational programs could transition women from all skill levels into more durable roles in tech and other sectors. “Technology can be a great equalizer when tailored to the unique needs of a community,” says Michele Malejki, HP’s global head of social impact, who is speaking on this topic at the Female Quotient Equality Lounge on March 8, International Women’s Day. “We partner with organizations such as UN Women, the HP Foundation,  and HP LIFE Centers, where women and other marginalized communities have the opportunity to reskill using modern technology.”

In the past, networking events, certifications, and credentialing classes might have limited the number of attendees, but online programs and platforms like LinkedIn Learning, the Lambda School, and General Assembly have unprecedented reach. Of course, having time to pursue education over short-term income also remains a luxury, especially for women of color, who disproportionately perform low wage work for fewer basic benefits, let alone development opportunities. These education platforms will only broaden access by remaining affordable. The pandemic has also exacerbated how the digital divide perpetuates inequality for those without internet access.

Meanwhile, reskilling initiatives in the United States have altered the trajectories of people like Christine Snow, who was a flight attendant for nearly a decade. Snow, 29, realized the pandemic would have long-lasting effects on travel. After leaving her job in September 2020, she began attending a coding immersion boot camp called Zip Code Wilmington

The Delaware-based program provides technical training for software development and data analytics and supports job placement. After completing 12 weeks of coursework, Snow is interviewing for software development jobs at financial and consulting companies. “Zip Code Wilmington… empowered me to make a jump into the tech industry and made me confident that I will find fulfilling work even after this pandemic shook the world we live in.” 

Returning to the pre-pandemic status quo isn’t an option, says Malejki. Otherwise, “when another crisis hits, women will once again receive the short end of the stick,” she says. “We must learn the tough lessons from this pandemic, fix the systemic issues in play, and rebuild for a more inclusive future.”

For Olson, the economic imperative to create more cohesive “work-life integration” has never been clearer. The ultimate goal is to find solutions that bring women back into the workforce, and incentivize them to remain. After all, the pandemic forced companies to dramatically adapt the ways they plan and conduct business amid the changing landscape. Olson’s view is, this type of creativity should also apply to hiring, training, and caregiving responsibilities. She says, “We are creative when we plan for business — why wouldn’t we be for people?”

RELATED: How retraining and adult education can help close the skills gap