A shocking number of women are considering changing jobs or leaving the workforce altogether in 2021. According to Lean In and McKinsey, around a third of women who are employed are considering making major changes in their job situation.
But why? After so many decades of progress, why are women beginning to leave the workforce in droves?
Every individual has her own reasons. But unfortunately, there are some common threads affecting women that are convincing them to leave the workforce. Here’s what we know about why women are leaving the workforce—and what they’re doing instead.
Unrecognized, Underpaid, Unappreciated
One of the biggest reasons women are leaving the workforce is that the jobs they hold are frequently unrecognized and underpaid for their work.
Many women work in jobs like house cleaning, child care, adult caregiving, retail, and other low-wage industries. While these industries are absolutely crucial for society to function, women working in these sectors have to deal with demanding work and long hours for very little pay.
Over time, poor pay and lack of appreciation can make a person want to switch careers or simply leave the workforce altogether. If we don’t start paying workers in these essential industries more (and appreciating them as they deserve), we are going to see staffing issues emerge in the near future, which could have major consequences as women leave the workforce.
Persistent Racism in the Workplace
Women of color are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, which affects their ability to pay for basic necessities. But beyond that, women of color also face racism in the workplace, affecting their emotional well-being and even their safety. Many women are choosing to leave the workforce, rather than endure persistent racism at low-wage jobs.
Burnout From Increasing Responsibilities
Despite the progress that has been made over the years, responsibilities for women have continued to increase. As women’s participation in the workforce has increased, their responsibilities at home have as well. Dr. Leilani Carver, Director of Graduate Strategic Communication and Leadership and the Director of Undergraduate Communication and an Associate Professor of Strategic Communication and Leadership at Maryville University shares, “According to Deloitte’s Women @ Work: A Global Outlook Study, 80% of women indicated that their workload increased due to the pandemic. Additionally, in the same report, 66% reported that their responsibilities at home increased and over half with children stated that they manage most childcare duties.”
Most women still take on the bulk of household tasks, like childcare, cleaning, and cooking.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many women have started to burn out from their increasing responsibilities. Dr. Carver says, “Burnout has played a significant role in this as women have seen their workloads increase at home and at work at unsustainable levels.”
When schools closed due to COVID-19, many women had to juggle homeschooling with work and other responsibilities. Furthermore, women who are still participating in the workforce report that they have been given even more responsibility at work.
It’s not surprising that all of these responsibilities are contributing to burnout among women. Those who can afford to are often choosing to step back from the workforce, either temporarily or permanently, to focus on their families.
The Great Gender Gap
While we’d love to believe that the gender gap in the workforce is a thing of the past, the truth is that women are still often left behind in prosperous industries like tech. Women can easily find jobs, but they may struggle to enter high-wage industries or get promoted to leadership roles.
According to Meredith Wells Lepley, Ph.D. an Associate Professor of the Practice of Psychology in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California says, “One of the many reasons women are leaving the workforce is because they look up the corporate ladder and into the C-suite, and they don’t see many people who look like them. And they ask themselves, “Why should I stay here when my opportunities are clearly limited?”
She goes on, “They see the men in the organization receiving mentoring from leaders, being invited to lunch and golf outings, and being tapped for promotions. But those things aren’t happening as often for women, especially women of color.”
Not only is this unjust, but it also has negative consequences for economic growth. Companies are most successful when they achieve gender diversity and a happy, healthy workplace. This is especially true when women hold leadership positions. Women have different perspectives that can allow companies to enjoy greater success.
Women Turning to Entrepreneurship
Some women are leaving the workforce to care for their children and are not planning to work, at least for the time being. Others, however, are taking their careers in a different direction and turning to entrepreneurship. And they’re often very successful, generating 10% more revenue over a 5-year period than men who start their own businesses.
Although women have shown how successful they can be as business owners, men still lead in starting new businesses. If these trends continue, however, we are likely to see even more women striking out on their own and creating their own wealth through entrepreneurship. Encouragement and mentorship are important for helping women to succeed as business owners.
What’s the Takeaway?
We have to think about why women are leaving the workforce if we want to address the problem. Low wages, poor advancement opportunities, inflexibility, burnout—there are lots of ways the workforce is unfriendly to women. If we want to keep women in the workforce, we need to give them a reason to stay.
Dr. Wells Lepley adds, “This is why women’s leadership development programs are so critical. Women need the leadership training that many men are getting informally but regularly. Women’s leadership development programs, such as SOAR, provide women with the training they need to navigate their organization’s political landscape, to network broadly and effectively, to influence and negotiate their place at the leadership table.”
Women leaving the workforce shouldn’t come as a surprise. We need to support women in starting their own businesses. These entrepreneurs are fueling economic growth. If they are allowed to flourish, we may see a new era of innovation take shape in the United States.