Despite increased parental benefits and support for working mothers in many countries, the reality is that an increasing number of women are leaving the workforce once they have children. While this is particularly noticeable in the United States, where paid maternity leave is left to the discretion of the employer and many women are permitted just six weeks off work, even in Europe, the number of women returning to work once their leave has ended, is continuing to fall. This is despite many countries having generous parental leave policies and companies having an obligation to consider flexible working requests.
Why are Women Leaving the Workforce?
While women leaving the workforce is not entirely due to family commitments, it is the leading reason that women give for not working. Women remain overwhelming the primary caregivers for children and other family members, which restricts their ability to play an active role in the workforce.
In addition to caregiver commitments, the cost of childcare, and the increasing demands placed on employees in many industries are also reasons given for the decision not to return to work. And despite laws protecting pregnant women and mothers, there is also evidence that a significant number still face discrimination in the workplace, which is another contributing factor.
Women Returning to Work
Even if women do return to work, research produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in December 2014, which examined data from across Europe, demonstrated that many women who do return to work often do so on a part-time basis. As many part-time jobs are in lower skilled occupations or roles, it means that women are frequently working at a level that is below what is known as their ‘qualification grade’.
Where women do return to the workforce, even after a relatively short period of time, the gap in their work history means that their earning power has been reduced dramatically. Research by the Harvard Business Review has shown that women who take just two years out of the workforce lose an average of 18% of their earning power. For those who take three years off, it rises to as much as 37%. This is partly due to a perception that women with caregiver obligations will be less committed to their work or that they may have lost skills or knowledge during their time outside of the workforce.
The Wider Impact of Women Leaving the Workforce
The loss of women from the workforce or the under utilization of their skills has a significant impact on countries’ economies. For example, in 2015, a roundtable event held by Policy Network identified that the loss of women from the workforce could be costing the British economy up to £10billion per annum. In Finland, the former prime minister and deputy secretary general of the OECD, Mari Kininiemi, cited research that revealed that just a 50% reduction in the gender gap in the workforce could increase the coutnry’s GDP by six percent by 2030.
Losses are not confined to national economies; it is also a loss of skills and expertise that have been honed over years. For individual companies, this can create a skills gap within the organization that is not easily replaced. Filling the gap requires a significant time and monetary investment. More widely, industries as a whole are experiencing a ‘brain drain’ that affects the overall standards of the sector.
There is, however, a solution that tackles these problems and benefits women, employers, and industry alike. That solution is agile working.
What is Agile Working?
We are all familiar with flexible working, but agile working is different. While flexible working usually requires employees to be in a specific place at predetermined times, agile working allows them to work in places and at times that best suits the employee — on the proviso that they meet agreed targets.
How Does It Work?
Modern technology means that employees are able to access company systems and information from anywhere in the world. Files can be sent via email or uploaded directly to company systems. Meetings can be held via online conferencing facilities, while clear targets and objectives mean that performance can still be managed and measured.
The Benefits to Women
Agile working allows women to remain economically active and maintain some financial independence while managing their caregiver commitments, which is an important factor for many women. Career-wise, it enables women to maintain their skills and continue to prove their expertise in their field for if and when they choose to change employers or return to an office environment. The very nature of agile working also opens up global opportunities that they may not otherwise have been able to access. This can provide greater leverage when negotiating their employment terms and conditions.
The Benefits to Companies
As mentioned above, companies invest both time and money in training their employees. Allowing women to work on an agile basis means that this investment is not lost, and they retain valuable employees. While employers may fear that unsupervised staff will abuse the system, research has shown that agile working actually leads to greater productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. In addition, employees express greater job satisfaction, so they are less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Client satisfaction also increases when staff are able to work at times that suit them. Many people who work agilely spend at least some time working outside of normal office hours. This means that they are able to be responsive to client requests and queries, which directly contributes to client retention.
In some cases, companies may choose to employ agile workers on an ‘as required’ basis, more akin to freelancing. This allows them to respond to peaks and troughs in their workloads. This can be beneficial to employees who want more flexibility and the option of choosing which assignments they want to take on. This can be particularly advantageous to employees with children of school age who need to plan around school holidays.
The loss of women from the workforce is detrimental to women, individual companies, industry, and the economy. When women do return, it is often on a part time basis in roles that are below their qualification and skill level. Even if they do return to a full time role equivalent to their pre-children position, their earning power is dramatically reduced due to a number of factors, but mainly due to employers’ perceptions of reliability and retained skill level.
Agile working allows women to remain within the workforce on a basis that suits both them and employers. Research has demonstrated the range of advantages to all parties concerned, from enabling women to maintain and demonstrate their skills to improved client service and satisfaction. While agile working may require some investment by employers, the ongoing benefits will far outweigh the costs involved.
About the Author
Emma Taylor-Lane runs the blog startsmall-dreambig.com, a blog dedicated to small businesses and their success wherever they are in their development. Having grown up in a family business and worked in a number of small businesses, Emma has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, leaving her with a real passion for helping businesses succeed.