Could the Next 10 Days Be More Critical to Women’s Advancement Than the Last 20 Years?

August 6th, 2020

I couldn’t sleep last night. 

I kept reflecting on a conversation I had yesterday about school reopening and women’s workforce participation. I had said:

“In the next 10 days, we’re going to see a gigantic clash between family needs and women’s needs as professionals – and I’m pretty sure the latter one is going to lose out. We’re going to lose 20 years of women’s advancement as women have to make decisions that reduce their workforce participation to support at-home learning and childcare.”

Many others have raised the alarm on this, as reflected in truly excellent articles out there on the topic such as here,1 here,2 here,3 and here.4

However, as someone who researches what HR can do to improve how organizations manage and enable people, I feel a certain obligation to further underscore what’s happening and what HR might be able to do … RIGHT NOW.  

What’s happening

We know that:

Women are bearing the economic brunt of this pandemic, whether it be in lost jobs or handling childcare.

As a result, there’ll be a long-term consequence on their earnings and careers. Here are a few important statistics:

  • Nearly 11 million jobs in the US held by women disappeared from February to May, erasing a decade of job gains by women in the labor force5
  • In 2020, female unemployment reached double digits for the first time since 1948; the June unemployment rate for Latinas was 15.3% and for Black women it was 14%; for white men: 9%6
  • About 8% of women who have been laid off have zero chance of being called back to the workforce, as compared with 6.4% of men; 4% expect to be called back but probably won’t be7
  • Women are providing around 70% of the childcare during business hours, spending 40% more time watching their children than fathers in couples in which the parents are married and working full time8

As we look to the beginning of the school year, the overwhelming refrain seems to be that people need a very different setup from what they had last spring. As an interviewee in USA Today said:

“We can’t spend another school year or even another month doing things the way that we did it between March and June.”

Mara Geronemus, former big law firm lawyer now in private practice9 

This is echoed by data, which show the drawbacks of the last school year and the need for a different approach:

  • 73% of teachers felt successful teaching remotely during the pandemic, down from 96% during normal periods10
  • 64% of parents were concerned about their children falling behind in school as a result of the pandemic11
  • Two-thirds of parents have changed their childcare since March; yet, as of June, 47% of parents said they’ll need to change their childcare arrangement again within the next 3 months – and an additional 30% anticipated within the next 6 months12

Given this, we’ll likely see some significant changes to work arrangements – with the exact changes becoming increasingly clear over the next 2 weeks as more schools announce their plans.

Whatever the changes are, it looks as though distance learning will be a part of them for the foreseeable future – and that will have significant repercussions for workers:

  • Only 19% of parents prefer their children to return to school in-person full-time this year
  • 75% of the 20 largest school districts are expected to be teaching fully online in the fall13
  • More than 60% of working parents believe that carrying out distance learning from home will place an extremely difficult burden on their family14
  • 22% of parents are unlikely to return to their same work situation or are unsure if they’ll return at all15

As in the spring, this burden is likely to disproportionately fall on women:

  • Women in the UK were 47% more likely than men with children to have permanently lost or quit their jobs since February 2020 – a trend we can expect to continue in the US this fall16
  • Of senior leaders who said that distance learning from home will place an extremely difficult burden, mothers are more than 1.5 times more likely to report they don’t intend to stay at their current employer for at least the next 12 months as compared with fathers17
  • When women leave the workforce, they can expect to lose up to 3-4 times their annual salary for each year out of the workforce – which obviously compounds over the course of a career18

In summary:

The decisions that women and their families make over the next few weeks will have dramatic consequences for those women’s careers and, in turn, companies’ abilities to retain women throughout their organizations.

What HR can do

This is obviously a systemic problem, which should be addressed from a broader perspective. However, given this is unlikely to happen – especially not in the next few weeks – organizations need to put in place practices that will help women stay in the workplace while still caring for their children. Here are a few things HR can do right now to help:

  • Support caregivers
  • Adjust current talent practices to support flexibility
  • Redesign future talent practices to create on-ramps back into the company

Support caregivers

As the good folks at Mercer mentioned in a webinar today,19 employers can support caregivers in 3 primary ways (see Figure 1):

  • Flexibility at work
  • Flexibility from work
  • Caregiving benefits

Figure 1: Caregiving Support – Options for Employers | Source: Mercer, 2020.

Flexibility is absolutely critical to enabling employees to do their work and to ensuring retention of them. For example, a recent study showed that 92% of employees who strongly agree their “organization provides needed flexibility to work from home with children at home” intend to stay at their organization for the next year – compared to just 66% of employees who strongly disagreed with that statement.20

The ability for parents to control when, where, how, what type of work, and with whom they work is very important to enabling them to work during this pandemic.

This type of flexibility could include schedule sharing, reduced schedules, or supplementing current work with additional resources to lessen the workload. Also, as noted, it’s also incredibly important to provide parents with additional leave and time–off during this pandemic to meet their families’ needs, similar to what Microsoft did with giving workers 12 weeks of parental leave due to school disruptions.21

There’s one additional type of flexibility, though, that’s important to consider and isn’t called out in Figure 1 – flexibility on role if an employee’s home situation requires them to have a different situation from before. Many articles are rife with examples of people having to make a choice between quitting and working in a situation from which they could contract COVID and bring it home to a health-compromised family member. Given the number of women in essential roles, this is a situation that has especially impacted them. With the current situation, leaders have an opportunity to reimagine how work gets done and being more flexible about who does it.

While a lot has been written about the first 2 types of flexibility (and I strongly recommend you listen to the Mercer webcast), I’d like to focus on the topic of benefits – especially childcare benefits –  as that seems to have the greatest opportunity for reimagination.

Just 6% of employers offered subsidized childcare at the beginning of 2020, with 19% of employers making emergency or backup childcare services available to employees.22

According to a survey,23 the most common employer-offered childcare resources are:

  • In-center backup care options
  • Access to paid platforms to find care
  • In-home care options
  • Cash subsidies for care
  • Onsite childcare

The first 4 bulleted items are ones that companies can contract with external vendors to offer immediately. Also, in this era of “learning pods,” companies such as Swing Education are offering teachers to small groups of children,24 which is something that companies could subsidize immediately.

The last bulleted option, onsite childcare, is one worth considering, though it can take more time to implement.

It’s an approach that’s served Patagonia especially well over the years, enabling the company to have a 100% retention rate of mothers.25 This benefit has also been offered for a long time by Google as well as Cisco.26 Of course onsite childcare would have to adhere to health guidelines, but it could represent an opportunity to “not waste a crisis” by providing a benefit that would help keep employees – especially women – in the workforce, but that could have long-term benefits by supporting parents in the workplace.

Interestingly, another Care.com27 survey shows that respondents would trade many other benefits to get more childcare assistance, showing that offering this type of benefit isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Benefits Respondents Would Trade for Childcare Assistance | Source:, 2020.

I’m sure there are other benefits or types of flexibility you can think of to support women in the workplace – what suggestions do you have?  

Adjust current PM practices to support flexible remote working

While different talent practices have to come together to support flexible working, performance management (PM) – given its impact on promotion and compensation – is a critical one. We wrote about this topic extensively in our report, The Double-Double Shift: Supporting Women’s Performance Management During a Pandemic.

In that study, we identified 10 specific things organizations need to focus on to improve PM for women. We put those items into the 3 buckets of culture, capability of managers, and clarity (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Three Cs to Improve Performance Management for Women During COVID-19 | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Of this list of 10, the most important ones right now are ensuring that employees have absolute clarity on the expectations of them and that managers are focused on outcomes – not inputs (such as time available electronically, speed of email response, etc.).

I’ve focused here on the role of PM in supporting women, but I know other talent management practices could help, too. Share what you’ve seen below:

Redesign future talent practices to create on-ramps back into the company

I hate to admit defeat before a good battle is fought, but in this case, I think it’s fair to say this: We are likely to lose a lot of good women from the workforce before COVID-19 is done – even if we implement all the practices above. The question then becomes:

How will we plan to bring these women back into the workforce in the future?

We know that it can be very difficult for mothers to return to the workforce.28 If organizations want to get mothers back, they’ll have to design for them. Some ways to do this include the following (see linked HBR article for more details on most of these):29

  • Create returnships – These are opportunities that are 8 weeks to 6 months in length and allow returnees to refresh their skills and the organization to evaluate the candidates for permanent roles
  • Hire returnees into permanent positions, with support – Provide returnees targeted coaching and mentoring to support them in the transition back to work
  • Host events to welcome candidates – For example, Bloomberg offers a “Returner Circle” program, a 1-2 day event for preapproved applicants to learn about careers, receive coaching, and conduct exploratory interviews30
  • Provide benefits aside from just cash – As you can imagine, flexibility and childcare benefits will likely remain key
  • Seek out talent sources that feature mothers – As we learned in our D&I tech research, a number of technology platforms can connect mothers to companies, such as The Mom Project and Mom Source Network, that can help create on-ramps for professional women into jobs

What other ideas do you have for how to help women come back to the workforce? Share them below: 

A personal call to action

I dislike the question, “What keeps you up at night?,” but I must say, this topic keeps me up at night. We need more women in leadership, for the sake of the success of our organizations, our societies, as well as women ourselves.

We are in a critical moment: The practices leaders put in place right now can help us avoid “losing” a generation of women leaders.

I hope that some of these suggestions help move you forward in thinking about how you will retain and promote women in your workforce.

If, for some reason, you’re not in a place to take action on the suggestions above, there’s at least one thing you can do:

Ask the mothers in your life how they are doing as they approach school reopening. Find out what they’re thinking, what they’re struggling with – and see if you can help in some way. And even if you can’t help, at least try to empathize.

In the conversation I had yesterday – the one that prompted me to write this blog – it helped just to hear that other person say (upon learning that I will be homeschooling my kids):

“That sounds tough. I’m sure it will turn a 12-hour day into a 16-hour day.”

I felt seen and heard. 

Which, when one is managing kids, home, and work all at the same time, is more than I feel like I get some days. And that’s enough to keep me – and many other women – going to the next day, and the one after that.

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  1. “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” The New York Times / Deb Perelman, July 2, 2020.
  2. “Women’s Careers Could Take Long-Term Hit From Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Wall Street Journal / Lauren Weber, July 15, 2020.
  3. “Lack of school and child care could mean losing ‘a generation of working parents’,” / Megan Leonhardt, August 6, 2020.
  4. “Real Life Horror Stories From the World of Pandemic Motherhood,” The New York Times / Joan C. Williams, August 6, 2020.
  5. “Coronavirus pandemic creates America’s first female recession amid child care, unemployment woes,” USA Today / Chabeli Carrazana, August 3, 2020.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Nearly 11% of the workforce is out of work with no reasonable chance of getting called back to a prior job,” Economic Policy Institute / Heidi Shierholz.
  8. “The impact of Covid-19 on gender equality,” CEPT Press-Covid Economics / Titan Alon, et al, April 14, 2020.
  9. “Coronavirus pandemic creates America’s first female recession amid child care, unemployment woes,” USA Today / Chabeli Carrazana, August 3, 2020
  10. “Teachers’ Experiences Working from Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Teach Upbeat / Matthew A. Kraft & Nicole S. Simon, Summer 2020.
  11. “Lower-income parents most concerned about their children falling behind amid COVID-19 school closures,” Pew Research Center / Juliana Menasce Horowitz, April 15, 2020.
  12. “Piecing Together Solutions: Working Parents, Childcare, and COVID-19,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, July 2020.
  13. “School Districts’ Reopening Plans: A Snapshot,” Education Week / Lesli Maxwell & Hannah Farrow, et al, July 15, 2020.
  14. “Back To School Blues: The Fall Outlook For Working Parents,” Perceptyx / Brett Wells, August 4, 2020
  15. “Piecing Together Solutions: Working Parents, Childcare, and COVID-19,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, July 2020
  16. Parents, especially mothers, paying heavy price for lockdown,” UCL News, May 2020.
  17. “Back To School Blues: The Fall Outlook For Working Parents,” Perceptyx / Brett Wells, August 4, 2020.
  18. “Calculating the Hidden Cost of Interrupting a Career for Child Care,” Center for American Progress / Michael Madowitz & Alex Rowell, et al, June 21 2016
  19. The New Shape of Work: Flexing for the Future, Mercer / Ed Lehman, et al, August 6, 2020
  20. “Back To School Blues: The Fall Outlook For Working Parents,” Perceptyx / Brett Wells, August 4, 2020
  21. “Microsoft is giving workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave because of school disruptions,” CNN Business / Rishi Iyengar, April 9, 2020.
  22. “COVID-19 brings new meaning to bring your child to work day,” WillisTowersWatson / Rachael McCann & Megan Sowa, April 16, 2020.
  23. Survey Spotlights the Impact of COVID-19 on Parental Behaviors and Attitudes Towards Childcare,, June 2020.
  24. “Parenting in a Pandemic: Parents turn to private “pods” to school children,” Minnesota Public Radio-Marketplace / Meghan McCarty Carino, July 21, 2020.
  25. “Family Values: This is what work-life balance looks like at a company with 100% retention of moms,” Quartz Media / Jenny Anderson, October 16, 2016.
  26. “Which tech company offers the best child care?” FORTUNE / Jennifer Alsever, October 14, 2013.
  27. “Back-to-School 2020: survey reveals what’s really on the minds of working parents,” / Emily Paisner, August 6, 2020.
  28. “Gender Divide: The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus,” The New York Times / Claire Cain Miller, September 6, 2014
  29. “Helping Stay-at-Home Parents Reenter the Workforce,” Harvard Business Review / Joanne Lipman, June 7, 2019.
  30. Bloomberg & Women Returners launch Bloomberg Returner Circle, Women Returners, 2015.