The pandemic has changed the labor force in ways that nobody would have anticipated in 2019. After decades of steady growth women’s participation in the workforce declined dramatically. This article, originally published on Government Technology Insider, examines not only the reasons for the mass exodus of women from the workforce, but also how organizations can bring women back in by focusing on closing the digital skills divide and increasing support for working parents and primary caregivers.
An analysis from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that more than 300,000 women left the labor force last September – even though 194,000 jobs were added to the economy during the same month. Economists advise that infrastructure policies should include plans to ensure that this current disruption does not reverse years of progress made in gender workforce equality. While these numbers may point to an oncoming workforce crisis, the Women and Skills Report published by Coursera suggests that the departure of women from the workforce may be only temporary. What will be key to retaining women currently employed and bringing back women who have exited the workforce will be closing the digital skills gender divide.
Presently, infrastructure policies to address the gender employment gap have centered around increasing access to childcare. The White House’s Build Back Better Framework (BBBF) will focus on increasing support for working parents and caregivers, who are disproportionately women. But even if lack of affordable childcare has been a leading cause for women’s departure from the workforce, plans to bring women back to work must also address the existing skills gaps that women faced prior to the pandemic.
Jobs in STEM fields tend to offer advantages such as remote work, higher pay, flexible schedules, and greater job security amidst rapid technological advancement, but women comprise only 25 percent of this workforce. To determine the cause of this, it’s necessary to examine whether women are facing difficulties in obtaining the skills they need to advance their careers in these fields.
According to the Women and Skills Report, as the gender employment gap has widened, the gender gap in online learning has narrowed. This means that the interest is there, and many women could be leaving the workforce to pursue new skills and training that will allow them to return to better job opportunities. NWLC noted that women were previously overrepresented in industries where job safety and stability were most affected by the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality, education, and healthcare. The report finds that women are increasingly interested in obtaining in-demand digital skills. For example, the Google IT Support Professional Certificate is among the top courses taken by women on Coursera’s e-learning platform.
Several states, including New York and Minnesota have partnered with online learning companies to bring courses in IT, computer programming, and other digital skills to displaced workers. These programs are free and can be completed at the schedule and pace of the individual learner, increasing accessibility to women who may be inhibited by caregiving responsibilities. If policies aim to bring women back to the workforce, they need to also create opportunities for more women to move into better digital jobs.
With women’s participation in the workforce at its lowest since 1988 there is much work to be done to stem the tide of resignations and welcome women back to full time employment. The BBBF provides a unique opportunity for state and local governments to be a key driver of women’s employment by improving economic opportunities for women through training and education in STEM fields. Policies that aim to close the digital skills gender divide can speed up the pace of gender equality in the workforce, and diversity in the workforce ultimately leads to better overall economic resilience.