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Addressing The Brain Drain of Female Talent

She’s considering pausing her career.

My brother, a single dad who lives with our recently widowed father, is doing all he can to juggle school and work and the demands of caring for a multi-generational household. “I’m stretched so thin, I feel like Elastic Man. I’m not going to let this harm my kids or Dad and I’m doing all I can at work, but something’s gonna give.”

He’s wondering if – and how – he can downshift.

For my cousin, it all became too much and he finally quit his job so he could care for his six year old twins while his wife amped up her work to cover the lost income. “I’ve become a 1950s housewife, only I’m not a wife and it’s not the 1950s”.

He’s already gone.

We’ve all been reading about the brain drain of lost female talent due to COVID-19, but the truth is, this is NOTHING NEW and it isn’t just about women.

iRelaunch, whose research in association with the Federal Reserve revealed 2.1 million college-educated women leave the paid workforce every year and have been doing so for decades. In fact, female workforce participation has been stagnant or declining since 1999 and is lower in the U.S. than in many other industrialized nations.

And, 2015 global research from EY showed that the majority of white-collar Millennial fathers had passed on a promotion, taken a pay cut, or left a job so they could spend more time with their families. 

The impact of women leaving the paid workforce is estimated to be $64.5 BILLION in lost wages and lowered economic activity. We haven’t tracked the impact of men downshifting their careers for family perhaps because our bias assumes they don’t leave, but they do and it’s time we accounted for it.

In researching for my book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, I interviewed 186 highly successful women and surveyed nearly 1,500 more. I learned that while 72% paused their careers, 89% did not want to or plan to. It was the impossibility of having a high-demand career coupled with the pressure to parent without a supportive workplace that proved too much. Mothers – and fathers – in the midst of Covid are facing all of the same challenges we have for decades and now so much more.

The good news is that my research also showed there is a path forward, one that these women, in partnership with forward-thinking employers, have been trail-blazing for years. It starts by recognizing caregiving is not her problem (or his problem), it’s our problem.

As we head into the winter holidays, I worry more women and men will make the decision to pause because they have no other options. Let’s give them the support they need so they don’t have to. Here are five tips on how to support working parents right now:

  1. Track the data
    Andy Grove famously said, what gets measured gets done. Are you tracking the career paths of new moms (with children in the 1-5-year-old range)? Do their careers get sidelined? What about new dads? Are they leaving too? Do you know why?

    I left my job as a brand manager at Nestle for a new job with more responsibility and better pay because my career had stalled after I gave birth to my first son. My manager (a father with a stay-at-home spouse) told me directly he thought it was best for the children when mothers stayed home. His manager (another father with a stay-at-home spouse) asked me almost every day if I missed my newborn son. When I left, no one asked me why. If they had, I would have told them I knew I was never going to thrive working for leaders who believed the best mother was a stay-at-home mother. 

    Track the data and then get curious.
  2. Offer coaching
    A few years ago, a close friend who is the Chief People Officer at an innovative advertising agency was surprised to learn that not only the new moms wanted and needed coaching on how to integrate work and family, but many of the new dads wanted guidance too. She told me it was a “duh” moment she regrets not anticipating. As she explained, “It costs a hell of a lot more to replace an employee than to give them coaching support.” Companies like WRK360 offer meaningful solutions for both mothers AND fathers. It’s well worth the investment – now more than ever.
  3. Pay for child care
    Amazon is offering subsidized child care through January 31, 2021, and other companies, like South Carolina based Contec, are innovating solutions to help parents in the midst of Covid. But what happens after the pandemic? A recent study revealed that 72% of Millennials and Gen Zs say lack of access to affordable child care is a major barrier to professional success and yet 68% of companies have no post-pandemic child care plan in place. With more than a million Millennial women becoming moms each year, I predict child care solutions will be the number one post-pandemic employee benefit. Get on it now or miss out on the talent you want to hire and retain.
  4. Commit to pay equity
    The majority of women I interviewed told me one of the key reasons they (rather than their husbands) left the paid workforce to care for kids was because they were making less. As one shared, “We had the same career, same degrees, same level of responsibility, but he was making $20,000 more than I was. When it came down to it, we realized his earning potential was greater than mine.” Defaulting to the higher wage earner would seem to make sense, except when the pay gap is a result of embedded bias. One powerful way to keep women in the paid workforce is to pay them fairly. Your company can stay transparent by delivering on the promise of pay equity by committing to the Fair Pay Pledge.
  5. Don’t go it alone
    Why should your company shoulder the burden of a system that doesn’t support working families? The U.S. is only one of two countries out of 193 in the U.N. that doesn’t offer government-funded paid leave. Join leaders like ex-Reddit CEO Aleis Ohanian and become an advocate for universal paid leave. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. If you’re looking for resources, has them.

These are just a few solutions. Other ideas include altering your promotion/partner/tenure track schedule so parents aren’t penalized if they have to downshift during Covid. Forward-thinking companies like Visa and Facebook have been partnering with iRelaunch and others to support women (and men!) who have paused by offering training and returnships. Finally, it’s not new news, but having mothers in the c-suite and on your boards sends a powerful message to the next generation of potential leaders. If you want women to stay, follow the lead of Citi, CVSHealth, PG&E, and others by promoting women into the C-suite. It’s not just good for them, it’s also good for your bottom line

Covid has brought us to our knees, but it is how we rise together that will mark our future. Wishing you and your families a healthy, restful, and rejuvenating holiday season. 

Lisen Stromberg

Lisen Stromberg is the CEO and founder of PrismWork and a 2GO Advisory Group consultant. She is a workplace culture innovation and leadership expert who works with clients to help them build next-in-class 21st century cultures with the future-forward leaders their company needs to succeed. As an award-winning independent journalist, her work can be found in The New York Times, Fortune, Newsweek, and other top media outlets. Her book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, reveals how trailblazing women disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies create workplaces that enable women to thrive.

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