By Jennifer Liu

Women have born the brunt of job loss and negative career impacts over the course of the pandemic, due to a host of factors such as carrying the weight of caregiving responsibilities, as well as their overrepresentation in in-person jobs vulnerable to disruption during the Covid-19 crisis.

As a result, nearly half of all women say the pandemic has negatively impacted their career path, according to a MetLife survey of 2,000 U.S. workers conducted in September. Nearly 1 in 5 women say they’ve been pushed out of the labor force altogether.

One encouraging sign is emerging, however, which could signal greater economic recovery: 2 in 3 women who’ve been forced out of work say they plan to return, according to MetLife.

At the same time, U.S. employers are facing a talent crunch as Americans quit their jobs at record rates throughout 2021, in search of roles better suited to their needs and interests. As such, employment experts say businesses must turn their attention toward what kind of work environment and solutions they can provide in order to hire and retain more working women.

Women are overwhelmingly looking for increased flexibility (78%) and career progression opportunities (73%) in their current or future employer, the MetLife report finds.

The majority of women also say that it’s important their current or future employer provides economic incentives; tailored benefits; upskilling programs; and diversity, equity and inclusion programs in order for them to feel well supported in the workplace.

Majority of women are considering a career change

More than half, 56%, of women say they’ve thought about a career change during the pandemic, MetLife found — double the 1 in 4 women who felt that way in the summer of 2020.

“We’ve reached a critical inflection point in the workplace where women are evaluating their careers in a new light,” said Bill Pappas, MetLife’s executive vice president and global technology and operations head, in a statement.

Already, 1 in 8 working women said they changed employers or jobs in the last 18 months. Overall, women are less likely than men to say they intend to still be working with the same employer in the next 12 months.

Employment experts say leaders must focus on who’s most likely to leave an organization in order to identify areas where they can provide better support systems to retain those employees. When businesses identify the groups most in need of help for retention, they can take targeted actions to support these workers rather than deploy generic programs and initiatives.

From the MetLife survey, for example, it stands to reason that many women believe they would benefit from increased flexibility options and clear opportunities to advance in their career, whether through mentorship, upskilling or dedicated tracks that lead to promotions.

Supporting women in STEM requires specific focus

Organizations can also look ahead at how they can attract and support incoming workers. According to the MetLife survey, of women who’ve been pushed out of the workforce and are planning to return, 8 in 10 say they specifically want to move into a STEM job.

A majority of women say they’ve considered pursuing a career in STEM, but 1 in 3 say they don’t know where to start, and another 1 in 4 say they’ve been actively discouraged from going into the field. Many fear it’s too late in their career to make the jump, and they feel their skills are better suited to other paths.

As employers aim to diversify their STEM workforces, they must consider how to encourage women to join at all stages, from entry-level to executive-level roles. That could mean providing upskilling and reskilling opportunities to existing employees to move into a STEM job with the company. Businesses can also hire women from nontraditional backgrounds who’ve completed industry-recognized certification programs. Employers must also evaluate their efforts in hiring women into mid-level and senior roles, as well as training existing employees to take on new levels of leadership.

“We need to ensure that women are inspired and empowered to grow their career by addressing what companies can do to support women at this pivotal moment,” said Susan Podlogar, MetLife’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, in a statement. “With so many women considering a STEM career and 1 in 3 saying they don’t know where to start, employers have both a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to help them forge a path forward.”

Meanwhile, many women already working in STEM face distinct barriers from succeeding in the field, including a lack of mentorship, role models and training. Some 18% of STEM workers say a lack of diversity at their company made them consider or make a career change, but 33% say more diversity, equity and inclusion in the leadership pipeline would lead them to continue working in STEM or pursue a career change into the field. The share of people who’d be encouraged to stay in STEM with greater leadership diversity rises to 53% for Black or African American women.

Women say they’d feel encouraged to stick with or start a new STEM job if their future employer offered more diversity, equity, and inclusion in the leadership pipeline; benefits that better fit their needs; dedicated trainings to help their career progression; paid internships or apprenticeships; returnships; employee resource groups; and a more manageable workload.