While the COVID-19 pandemic has rattled the U.S. economy, it is no secret that women have been hit the hardest. Although the country experienced an unemployment rate of 14.8% last year at its worst — a jump from the pre-pandemic low of 3.5 percent in February 2020 — women lost a net 5.4 million jobs during 2020, about one million more job losses than men, and 2.5 million women chose to leave the labor force altogether between February 2020 and January of this year.

The pandemic illuminated common barriers to women’s participation in the workforce. During the pandemic, women shouldered more of the child care, remote schooling and household responsibilities, making it difficult to balance a career with family responsibilities. With women more likely to have lower paying jobs than men, they became the ones to step back.

The impact of women not returning to the workforce is huge. History tells us that there is a positive relationship between a country’s per capita gross domestic product and women’s labor force participation rate. In other words, when more women join the workforce, economies tend to grow.

Our post-pandemic economy won’t fully recover — or reach its full potential — until women can rejoin and make up a significant portion of the workforce. While a lack of childcare options and flexible schedules pushed many women to step back from the workforce, women need to see career growth in their future to make it worthwhile to resume working.

An Education-focused Solution

Education is increasingly essential for career progression. Currently, 58% of the workforce needs new skills to get their jobs done. What’s more, people with college degrees can expect as much as a 167% salary bump compared to people who did not go to college. Additionally, a lack of education is often a barrier to middle management. Women hold slightly over one-third of management positions, with a majority of those held by white women. In science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, women are still vastly underrepresented, making up about only 27% of STEM workers.

So how can we pave the way to not only rebuild the female labor force, but create better, higher-paying career opportunities for women? The answer lies in greater education benefits and learning opportunities.

According to the Bright Horizons “Workforce Education and Equity in the Workplace” report, which surveyed over 1,000 American working adults on the role of education for professional growth, women, in particular, are struggling to take advantage of education opportunities. Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to experience affordability barriers to pursuing education, and women are also more likely than their male counterparts to say that their employers are not good at motivating them to seek out education programs. This explains why, despite a strong desire, nearly two-thirds of women have not been able to participate in an education program in the last five years, while only half of men report the same, the report found.

This disparity between men and women says that tuition assistance and in-house professional development opportunities have the potential to both build skills and put real movement toward gender equity.

So, what can employers do ensure their female employees have the same access and opportunity to participate in learning opportunities that will help grow their careers as men? Here are some steps to consider:

  • Remove cost barriers to ensure more women can participate in education programs: Financial barriers are one of the most significant barriers to women’s participation in education opportunities. Employers can remove the need to for employees pay upfront for courses or degree programs by paying the provider or institution directly. By combining this with lower-cost education programs, employees can take advantage of low-to-now cost educational programs, with no money upfront, which will open up opportunities to many more employees.
  • Offer non-traditional upskilling options to remove time constraints: Time is another top obstacle, with more than half of workers preferring programs that can be completed quickly. In fact, 70% of those surveyed by Bright Horizons said that certificates and shorter, non-degree programs are important to their future success. With 61% of women unable to participate in an education program in the last five years, despite a strong desire to, providing a variety of programs for employees to choose from, such as certificates, bootcamps and professional certifications, is critical.
  • Add a complementary student loan support program: Support for student loan repayment is also worth considering, as female student borrowers have an average debt that is 9.6% higher than their male peers one year after graduation, which may be preventing them from going back to school.
  • Include additional support benefits that will enable female employees to succeed: For instance, if an employee has children and is already balancing work and family obligations, offering child care benefits would remove a major barrier to attending a course and completing coursework. Companies must remain open-minded about providing benefits that will help women succeed.
  • Communicate and encourage women to seek out education programs: According to the study, half of women employees feel that they are not getting the guidance they need from their employers around pursuing education, including what programs are available to them, how to get started, or what skill sets will best benefit their career. Keep open dialogue with employees about education opportunities through manager discussions, annual reviews, employee newsletters and even education coaches to help employees understand their best path to success.

Companies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are proven to perform better, hire more qualified talent, have more engaged employees and retain workers at higher rates than companies that do not . In addition to ensuring a seat for all women, including women of color, at the table, building an inclusive culture that advances women also drives important business results, making it a win-win for everyone involved.