A Mass Exodus Among Women

Four times more women than men are leaving the workforce. Experts fear a “total wipeout” of years of gender progress.

In what amounts to a wake-up call for leaders about how inclusive their organizations are, women are opting out of the workforce in massive numbers. 

Last month alone, nearly 900,000 women reported being unemployed, a stunning four times the number of men who were without work. That goes against a historic trend where men disproportionately lost jobs in economic fallouts, and suggests the pandemic not only threaten the progress women have made in the workplace—but the pipelines firms were building for future female leadership talent. “It has the potential to be a total wipeout,” says Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for CEO succession and vice chairman of the firm’s Board and CEO services practice.

Large demographic trends such as this can shift and improve, of course. Yet for now, experts say women are getting hurt more than men because they hold more jobs in hard hit sectors like retail and hospitality. And  isn’t just layoffs and furloughs. A more significant and worrisome factor for firms is that women end up opting out to handle homeschooling, household labor or sick family members.  The pressures, says Stevenson, “more significantly and unfairly affects women.”

It’s not a new pressure, of course, and organizations have been cognizant of it for years, offering remote work options, job-sharing, and flexible schedules even before the pandemic. Since the pandemic’s outbreak, organizations have expanded family care leave and flexible work policies, as well as increased elder and childcare subsidies. 

While helpful, these measures don’t go far enough, says Nina Boone, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader in the firm’s North America Diversity and Inclusion practice. She says such measures allow women to merely survive in the workplace, but for them to thrive leaders need to think more holistically about systemic changes they can make to their organizations’ cultures. Boone points to factors like a performance review process that fails to take into account the extra lift women face at home and a lack of communication among managers about what support women need to handle those obligations. “These are the underlying reasons women are leaving or considering leaving the workforce in droves,” Boone says. 

According to numerous studies, including those conducted by Korn Ferry, diverse leadership teams, particularly those that are gender diverse, perform better financially. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, where revenue is going to be hard to come by for the foreseeable future and customers are demanding organizations be more representative of the communities they serve, the flight of females from the workforce could derail business goals.

With the financial impact of the pandemic likely to bleed at least into next year and possibly longer, Stevenson says more women are going to leave the workforce before they start coming back—if they do at all. “This trend isn’t done yet,” says Stevenson.