In February 2020, I admit feeling pretty optimistic about the strides women were making in the global workplace. Women were rising through the ranks in companies, in governments and even in Major League sports. And then, well you know.

Women took a very big hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With just a few days’ notice, women were sent home to work and their children sent home to learn. Kitchen tables became both an office and a classroom. Some women were forced to purchase laptop computers, power strips and high-speed WiFi connections to support their children’s remote learning and their own work from home needs. The pressure on women, many of whom are the sole financial provider in their household, was immense.

For many, the demands were unsustainable. Women began leaving the workplace by the thousands and then, the millions: In 2023, the workplace now has two million fewer women in it compared to 2019, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

What’s chased women away, what factors are still seeing them head for the virtual exit, and what will stop the hemorrhaging of female talent? Consider the challenges and proposed “fixes” below.

The Challenge: Policies Around Work From Home (WFH) and Return to the Office (RTO)

Company leaders are trying to figure out the ideal work schedule for staff, and many are requiring employees to return to the office. Many women are finding it difficult to comply with the new policies and many feel they have no choice but to quit in search of a more flexible schedule.

In general, women enjoy working from home because they can be highly productive at work and simultaneously, be available for their children and household responsibilities. While men are participating in these responsibilities too, data shows that women still perform seven hours more housework per week than men. The ability to throw in a load of laundry during the workday has serious and genuine appeal.

On top of all this, women are sincerely worried about their children and the toll the pandemic took on them mentally, emotionally, and educationally. It feels much safer to stay close to home and be available, especially in a time of increased school violence.

The Fix

Leaders can meet with their staff one-on-one to hear women’s concerns firsthand. Some companies are offering stipends to help cover child care costs and care for sickly family members. If women can make a legitimate business case regarding their productivity and ability to fulfill the expectations of their job descriptions, leaders would be smart to respond positively. Another potential fix? Men can more often choose to run the vacuum, do the dishes and pick up the children.

The Challenge: The “YOLO” Economy

Around March 2020, the proverbial “rat race” came to screeching halt for women. Killer commutes suddenly ended. Many women reported that for the first time in their careers, they were able to have dinner every night with their family. Finally, there was also time to reflect on the question, “Am I happy doing what I’m doing?” As the months wore on, the reflection continued and many women made major life decisions as a result. These included quitting jobs and moving to be nearer to loved ones or to a destination that they planned for retirement someday. Someday became today.

The Fix

Leaders can ask women about their ambitions and goals and do their best to support them with professional development opportunities and training. We are seeing a strong attention to work-life balance and to creating a culture committed to mental health and well-being. It’s going to take a while, but it is happening.

The Challenge: Workplace Bullying, Sexual Harassment and Racial and Sexual Discrimination.

The hard truth is that women have been suffering in silence for decades regarding abusive behaviors in the workplace. How do I know? They tell me.
Plus, I was one of them.

Why have women stayed mute about toxic work environments that tolerate workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and racial and sexual discrimination?

Most women stay silent out of fear — legitimate fear of getting fired, being labeled a troublemaker, not being liked, not being believed and much more. For example, when I asked an executive assistant, who was middle-aged and also a Black woman, how big a problem racism is for her on a daily basis, this was her emphatic response: “Oh, it’s a big problem but you will never know it. If I say something, I automatically get labelled as the ‘angry Black woman’ so I learned to hide what I am really feeling.’”

The Fix

Leaders need to commit to building authentic cultures of respect and that means holding people accountable for their behavior, no matter what position they hold. It means setting clearer expectations for all new hires about zero-tolerance policies for bullying and harassment. It means investing in sexual harassment training. Currently, only 6 out of 50 states require sexual harassment training. It is optional for the remainder and left up to the discretion of company leadership to decide how high a priority this training should be.

The Challenge: The Dirty Unspoken Secret — Women Have To Prove Themselves More Than Men Do

Women are genuinely tired of having to prove themselves over and over again in order to be deemed ready for advancement. They observe men receiving promotions and invitations to work on high-profile projects as women get passed over with little to no explanation. So, it has become easier to quit.

The Fix

Leaders must be intentional about building the pipeline for female leaders and this means the creation of robust mentorship and sponsorship programs. Women are watching to see what words turn into action.

The revolving door of women running to the exit of companies will slow down when leaders speak with their female staff one at a time. Talk with them. Ask questions and listen, really listen to the answers. I promise you that if you make it safe, they will tell you.