• The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on working women: Among women employed full-time prior to the pandemic, 29% have since reduced their hours and 9% left the labor market entirely.
  •  Women who cut back their hours say their employers could have helped by offering greater flexibility, understanding and patience to help navigate work and life during COVID-19.
  • Most women who downshifted plan to return to full-time work, but the majority will seek remote positions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted working women in the U.S. Nearly three million women have left the labor force since the pandemic started, and many more have reduced their hours to navigate current challenges.

This year, Women’s History Month coincides with the U.S. anniversary of the pandemic. To honor this poignant moment, Indeed surveyed 609 working women from across the country, offering a look at how the pandemic shaped their paths and what their stories reveal about the changing world of work. By examining their experiences, we hope to help employers understand what led so many women to downscale or even leave their jobs — and how to repair the damage.

Working women reduced hours, left labor market due to COVID-19

29% of women surveyed reduced their hours during the pandemic.

Source: Indeed

The numbers are stark: Women’s participation in the labor force is the lowest it has been in more than three decades. Among the women Indeed surveyed, 29% reduced their hours during the pandemic and another 9% left the labor market. Nearly all (96%) of these women did so entirely because of COVID-19. Even among women still working full-time, over one-quarter (27%) say they have considered cutting their hours due to COVID-19, and another 17% have considered quitting. 

Not all women are impacted equally, of course. Women who leave the workforce are 26% more likely to have children and 67% more likely to be primary caregivers, including for an aging parent. Women of color are disproportionately affected, being 50% more likely to have these caregiving responsibilities. 

Overall, women in caregiving roles report spending an average of 24 weekly hours looking after loved ones, equivalent to a second job. What’s more, the shift toward virtual learning for schoolchildren has brought new responsibilities. 

While the pandemic has drawn greater attention to women’s unsung household labor, many of them feel it’s impossible to balance these personal responsibilities with work. As a result, 76% of women who are working less said their professional performance had suffered.

COVID-19 magnified existing problems, pushing many women to the brink

79% of women who reduced hours or stopped working say the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.

Source: Indeed

Before the pandemic, the future of work looked bright. Previously rare perks such as flexible schedules, casual dress, unlimited paid time off and even pet-friendly offices were increasingly common, particularly in growing fields such as tech. Workers were in the driver’s seat, and it was dazzling.

Or was it? The experiences of working women during the pandemic show that, underneath it all, trouble was brewing. Burnout was rising, particularly among millennials, becoming so prevalent that the World Health Organization recognized it as an occupational hazard. And even in families with two working parents, most mothers bore the brunt of the domestic burden, resulting in “caregiver fatigue.” 

For many women with competing responsibilities, COVID-19 was a perfect storm: 83% of women who are now working less say the stress and anxiety the pandemic caused made caregiving more challenging. 

Similarly, 70% of the women who cut hours or quit report a lack of support from their employers when juggling work and home life during the pandemic — and they are more than three times as likely to say this as are women who still work full-time. However, for many, this is nothing new: more than one-third (31%) of women now working less experienced a lack of empathy at work prior to COVID-19, and they are 63% more likely to report this than their full-time peers.

The pandemic also highlighted the social and emotional role of work in women’s lives. Those who are no longer in full-time roles are more likely to report deteriorating personal and community relationships, and 79% say the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. And 50% feel their support system is weaker now, compared to 35% of full-time workers who feel this way. 

Empathy and flexibility crucial to retention, say working women

70% of women who downshifted report a lack of support from their employers.

Source: Indeed

Given that the pandemic was out of their control, what could employers have done differently? Women who quit or reduced their hours have some suggestions. 

Sometimes, the best way to help is to start a conversation: 80% say their managers could have simply asked how they could help, yet only 16% report that they actually did. Fifty-five percent say it would have helped if their employers had offered more flexibility with their schedules, enabling them to better adapt to the competing demands of work and home. 

Meanwhile, 51% wish their employers had tried harder to understand the pandemic’s unique challenges, and 49% say employers could have been more patient as they worked to balance responsibilities. 

All told, 70% say they didn’t receive the support they needed from management. They are more than three times as likely to report this as are women still working full-time, and it directly impacted their experience. For example, 65% of women who downshifted say their managers or peers scheduled decision-making meetings when they could not attend, 40% made hiring decisions without them and 33% made strategic decisions that impacted the employee’s work without their input. 

These women are more likely to view their managers (60%) and company (66%) as unsympathetic, pointing to broader problems in the business. What’s more, women of color are 50% more likely to report an unsympathetic manager.  

Seventy-one percent of women working less say they received little or no flexibility with their schedules, and they are 154% more likely to say this than still-working women. Similarly, 15% say their work could be done remotely, yet their employer required them to report to the office — and women who scaled back were nearly three times as likely to have had this experience. However, remote work isn’t a cure-all; some women still report managers who expected them to be available outside of normal working hours. 

It’s no surprise that women still working full-time report much more positive experiences: 86% say their managers were sympathetic to the pandemic’s challenges, while 87% say their managers remained patient as they worked to balance responsibilities. And 68% feel their employers offer the emotional support they need — which can be as simple as asking how they can help.

Women working less plan to return full-time, armed with new knowledge

74% of women working full-time say remote work helps them do their jobs better.

Source: Indeed

Despite these dramatic shifts, three-quarters (75%) of women who cut hours or quit their jobs plan to return to the workforce full time. But they bring the lessons of the past year with them — and employers would be wise to take notice. Empathy and flexibility will be as key to future job choices as they were to past decisions. 

Seventy percent of those working less want to return to a full-time remote role. Similarly, 74% of women working full time say remote work helps them do their jobs better. 

While they value flexibility, women also want employers to create more supportive remote environments. Forty-five percent of all respondents agree that the lack of interaction makes remote work more challenging, and 22% of full-time workers believe employee retention would improve with more opportunities for virtual engagement. As they consider their next moves, 68% of those working less say companies should consider how to maintain a strong company culture in digital environments. 

Women considering a return to full-time work say empathy from company leadership (42%) and their managers (40%) will be a crucial factor, and 60% plan to look for employers that are willing to accommodate their needs.

Women are even willing to change careers to get what they need: 79% of those who left full-time roles believe work-life balance is a challenge in their industries, and 60% are actively looking for jobs in a new sector.

Women’s lessons will shape the future of work 

The pandemic is a watershed moment. A significant number of working women have been pushed out of the labor market since the pandemic’s onset, from reducing their hours to quitting their jobs. For many, the combination of caregiving, work and an unsupportive employer was too much to bear.

But these women say flexibility, empathy and simply being asked about their needs would have made all the difference. Similarly, women who continue to work full-time are more likely to report supportive, patient supervisors and employers. 

As employers move forward, they should consider the lessons of the last year. When women return to the workforce, they will prioritize flexibility, remote options and empathy. These are powerful ways to attract talent but require many employers to break from the past.