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Women Are Leading the Way in the ‘Great Resignation.' Here's What It Means for Employers and Job Seekers

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The "Great Resignation" is well underway, with women leading the charge.

A record 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September, and 4.3 million did so in August, according to the Labor Department.

It was women saying "I quit" more so than men, according to data from payroll provider Gusto, which serves small and medium-sized businesses. In August, the gender gap hit the widest it has been since the firm began tracking in January 2020, with the quit rate for women 1.1 percentage point higher than men's. The gap narrowed to 1 percentage point in September and 0.81 percentage points in October.

Meanwhile, there will also be an exodus of corporate leaders, middle managers and individual contributors in 2022, a Qualtrics survey of nearly 14,000 full-time employees from 27 countries found. Sixty-three percent of women said they intended to stay at their company, down from 71% in 2021. Meanwhile, 67% of men said they'll remain, down from 70% in 2021.

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Some women may be quitting to pursue better opportunities and higher pay. Some may simply be burned out. Others have child- or elder-care issues.

"This pandemic has been particularly difficult for women at jobs, who also need to care for families," said Luke Pardue, an economist at Gusto.

"They have been the ones who have needed to take that step back in their professional lives in order to meet their family's responsibilities."

To be sure, women have born the brunt of those responsibilities during the Covid-19 pandemic, spending 20 hours a week on caregiving and housework last year, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org found in their 2020 Women in the Workplace report.

One in 3 women have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce entirely this year, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org's 2021 report found. That's down from last year's figure of 1 in 4.

"Even before the pandemic, we certainly weren't on equal footing" said Sian Beilock, CEO of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist. "There were still gender gaps in pay and climbing up the ladder and women represented at the highest levels.

"The pandemic made that worse."

Employer response

More employers are now offering perks to retain and attract employees, such as hiking pay and offering flexible options like remote work or a four-day workweek.

Yet to attract women, they should be careful how they approach remote work, Beilock warned.

While offering someone fully remote work is great for women with caregiving issues, there are second- and third-order consequences, she said.

"If you carry that out, what you see is that that would likely mean less women in the office, compared to men, and we know that a lot of the face-to-face interactions are so important for promotions," she said.

"We have to be really deliberate about the policies we're creating, if we not only hope to gain on some of the gender inequalities that were exacerbated during the pandemic, but actually help close the gap."

While the solution isn't one-size-fits all, managers should look at ways to level the playing field, perhaps by offering a hybrid schedule where everyone — including the CEO — is in the office on the same days, Beilock suggested.

Opportunities abound

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Whether women have quit recently or haven't worked for most of the pandemic, there are plenty of opportunities — and employers are willing to negotiate, Pardue said.

"This labor market right now is completely favorable to women dictating the terms of their employment, the types of jobs they go back to, the wages they're able to return to, and the schedules of the jobs that they return to," he said.

Beilock agrees, and encourages women who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time to bolster their confidence. Do something to bring back your accomplishments to the surface, like updating your resume and networking, she suggests.

"People looking for jobs right now and women thinking about where they want to be in the workforce, it's their chance now to narrate their story," Beilock said. "What skills do they have that will lead them to succeed in a particular job, even if they haven't worked in that industry before."

Employers should also cast a wider net while looking for employees, rethinking the skills needed and what on-the-job training the company can provide, she added.

"This is a real opportunity to create the kind of diverse workforce that we know leads to better outputs," Beilock said.

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