The COVID-19 pandemic created countless workplace challenges, but women in business faced the most — and seemingly the highest — hurdles.

For many women, the global pandemic left no real choice but to step away from work to manage new familial obligations like educating their children at home and caring for youngsters who would have spent their days at daycare or in school prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

We have already seen a disproportionate number of female employees exit the workforce due to the effects of COVID-19, and the trend is likely to continue. Researchers from the National Women’s Law Center estimate more than 2.3 million women have left the workforce since February 2020, bringing female labor participation rates to the lowest levels the country has seen since 1988.

READ ALSO: The Most Influential Women in Arizona Business for 2021

In the first month of 2021 alone, women made up an astonishing 80 percent of U.S. job losses — more proof of a recession that is specifically hitting women, erasing decades of work to narrow the gender gap. A new term — “shecession” — has been coined to describe this cataclysmic shift in the workplace and workforce.

The implications of the global health crisis are far-reaching and could result in a perpetuation and widening of the gender pay gap, as well as a lack of employment and advancement opportunities for women in the years ahead. It could also perpetuate the stereotype that mothers are not reliable employees because of their obligations to child rearing.

Now is an important moment for policymakers, business owners and employers to figure out how they are going to respond to the fact that, more than ever before, female employees are being stretched to cover family caregiving and work obligations at the same time.

According to Joshua Black, managing attorney at the Law Office of Joshua Black, some ways to make the workplace more family-friendly, include:

• Reviewing medical and other leave policies to ensure the policies are gender neutral and available to all employees. For instance, employers can review their handbooks for antiquated language, such as “maternity leave,” opting to update such a policy to “parental leave.” This language shift encourages a well-rounded workforce and embraces the idea that male employees can also take leave to care for family.

• Providing paid leave and paid sick days to help employees care for family members.

• Being aware that illness, such as COVID-19, affects each employee differently. Employers should review an employee’s individual circumstances when considering granting leave or workplace accommodations.

• Helping make childcare more accessible and affordable for employees.

• Working to normalize employees taking parental leave when appropriate. Many employees – male and female – say they fear taking parental leave will negatively impact the way they are viewed in the workplaces and will limit growth/promotion opportunities.

• Being open to flexible work arrangements that make it possible for working parents to have a career while raising their families.

With casting the spotlight on the Most Influential Women in Arizona Business for 2021 this month, here is advice from past Most Influential Women on what business leaders can do to create more opportunities for women in the workplace.

Elizabeth Shabaker
Kim Dees
Jodi R. Bohr
Lisa Davey

Elizabeth Shabaker, CEO, Versant Capital Management, (Most Influential Women of Arizona Class of 2018):  “We need more women in both the financial industry and in leadership. There has been a great deal of talk about it but not enough action. It’s not going to happen by just giving advice to women about how to advance in business. It’s up to businesspeople and their organizations to consciously include women in their ranks and in leadership positions. Propelling women to new roles requires plans that involve the commitment of both men and women. That means creating a workplace where women are included in all departments and with access to programs that amplify the capabilities of those who have the aspirations and ambition to excel in their field.”

Kim Dees, senior vice president and Southern Arizona retail division manager, WaFd Bank (Most Influential Women of Arizona Class of 2020): : A career in banking is more than processing a transaction for a client.  There are many facets of banking and skills in technology, government, sales and customer service are key in succeeding within the industry. I would encourage women entering the banking industry to aim to learn something new each day and continuously prepare for the next job opening or promotion. Mentors will provide guidance and dedication to your success. As leaders, it is our privilege and honor to help our team reach the next career level.  

Jodi R. Bohr, shareholder, Tiffany & Bosco (Most Influential Women of Arizona Class of 2019): “Mentorship support and flexibility are key. A formal mentorship program offers women the opportunity to ask questions without judgment. This support builds bonds that last. Also, flexibility (when possible) removes some of the pressure women feel when balancing work and family needs. Last year proved that we can get it done with a little flexibility. It’s OK to not be flexible at times. But when work can be done outside of normal business hours, let it be. A woman who feels like she can be there for her family when needed and is not placed within unnecessary constraints will shine and stick around to rise up the ranks.”

Lisa Davey, vice president and Northeast Arizona Division manager, WaFd Bank Arizona (Most Influential Women of Arizona Class of 2018): “As a female leader at WaFd Bank, I have opportunities to give back, cultivate new relationships, learn and grow side by side with a vast number of other women leaders. In my position, I aim to provide opportunities for young women to flourish within our bank by recognizing and utilizing the top talent among us. Our partnership with Metro High School introduced me to numerous talented young women who completed the WaFd Bank sponsored EVERFi program and excelled in the banking and finance classes. I encourage these young professionals to lead by example and share their passion for their career with the community through volunteerism and mentorship.”

Angela Olea

Angela Olea, RN, CEO, Assisted Living Locators (Most Influential Women of Arizona Class of 2019): “COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women in the workforce who faced a dual crisis of both job loss and overwhelming increase in caregiving demands as a result of school closures and collapse of support networks for their aging parents. It has created an unsustainable dynamic. As we prepare for post-pandemic life, I believe that offering part-time flexibility, remote-work environments, supplement wages and increased funding for childcare and senior assistance will ultimately be the key to drive the opportunity for women to better their work-life balance and return to the workforce.”