Is it time to hit the ‘panic button’ as women leave the retail workforce?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/damircudic
Oct 01, 2020
George Anderson

Retail has long been a source for jobs for women and in more recent times has become a place for career advancement as companies have realized the business value of aligning their workforces with their most important customers. Chains including Best Buy, Gap, Kohl’s and Sephora have women CEOs leading their businesses at one of the most challenging times in retailing history. Alarm bells are being sounded, however, over concerns that large numbers of women in retail will have to reduce their commitments or leave their jobs entirely as they try to balance work and home responsibilities during the pandemic.

A new study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, billed as the largest of its kind, has found that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or cutting back due to COVID-19. “In a single year, this would wipe out all of the hard-earned gains we’ve seen for women in management — and unwind years of progress toward gender diversity,” authors of the “Women in the Workplace” report write.

The report is based on analyzing data from 317 of the nation’s largest companies and survey responses from more than 40,000 of their female employees.

“If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and co-founder of LeanIn.Org, in a statement. “Leaders must act fast or risk losing millions of women from the workforce and setting gender diversity back years.”

Women, particularly those with children, are feeling torn by the demands of their personal and professional lives. Many complain about “burn out” as women are three times more likely than men to be responsible for managing household activities.

The study’s authors said that women in senior leadership are 1.5 times more likely to be considering leaving their jobs or cutting back. Nearly 75 percent cite feeling burned out as the biggest reason.

One of the biggest values of having women in leadership roles is that they are generally better than men in bringing other women along, particularly women of color. Sixty percent of women in senior leadership say they publicly acknowledge women of color in the workplace compared to 44 percent of men in similar positions.

Black women face more barriers to advancement than any other group, including bias, outright or unconscious. They report feeling excluded at work and the emotional toll of racial violence events as making it even more difficult.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retailers be concerned about losing female employees burned out by conflicting responsibilities heightened by the coronavirus pandemic? What should companies be doing to address this reality?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Retailers should be concerned and need to support women to help them alleviate some of the stress."
"According to Forbes, women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions, so losing female employees should always be of grave concern to retailers."
"Retail has a business decision to make. Many sales associates earn $15 or less per hour. Child care per hour, with even one child, costs as much or more than $15 per hour."

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15 Comments on "Is it time to hit the ‘panic button’ as women leave the retail workforce?"


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Art Suriano
Guest
Maybe it’s me, but I see this as another flawed study. Everything has been up in the air due to the pandemic, but I am convinced that we will eventually return to our “normal” way of life because, at some point, this will be behind us. What is different about COVID-19, unlike other pandemics and scary viruses, is this one received unbelievable media coverage and awareness. I’m not saying that was a bad thing or good. It is a fact. In 1968 we had the Hong Kong flu, which caused 3 million deaths in our country and, more recently, in 2009, we had the Swine Flu that had over 60 million Americans contracting the illness. Neither of those times did we have the media coverage, the press conferences, and the lockdown. However like those other periods, this too will end. I have said that all businesses need to proceed with caution with what they invest in and how they adjust because this will eventually end. So women are leaving retail in droves, and what should… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is concerning. Female representation is needed in retail leadership, not least because the majority of consumption is driven by women. A lot of iconic brands and successful retailers are headed by women – Ulta, Best Buy, Williams-Sonoma, Ross, Abercrombie & Fitch, Kohl’s, and so on. We need more women in retail boardrooms, not fewer!

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

Retailers should absolutely be concerned about losing female employees. I totally agree that gains to eliminate the gender gap in retail will be lost. The industry will also be set back by the loss of talent, knowledge and experience. Great, knowledgable employees are already hard to come by and this won’t help. Previously, we on RetailWire have talked about the changing work environment because of technology, the pandemic, etc. In these discussions, most have agreed that workplace flexibilty is critical to maintaining talent. Maintaining female employees will require retailers to double-down on workplace flexibity efforts.

Bindu Gupta
BrainTrust

This reflects a personal struggle of mine too as I am trying to manage office work, household responsibilities and two kids every single day and of course the pandemic has added another layer of complexity. Retailers should be concerned and need to support women to help them alleviate some of the stress. This includes flexible working hours, only attending meetings that are absolutely necessary, maybe providing free meal kit service subscriptions or such as incentives/benefits for the short-term to show that they care.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

We’re one of the few industrialized nations with no national childcare policy. This has been an impediment for women in the workforce for decades, but now that mindset has serious consequences for business. It’s distressing.

Scott Norris
Guest

Simply said and well said. An effective childcare policy (much like universal healthcare) won’t be an imposition to business, rather it will lift a burden that has held us all down for far too long. A restoration of our entrepreneurial spirit; recognition and reward of the values we are supposed to honor.

Xavier Lederer
BrainTrust

“I cannot work in retail forever, because I want to have a family,” is a phrase I hear mostly from female retail employees. Retail is a tough environment for people who want to combine personal and professional life: floor employees and store managers are expected to work during the weekend, in the evening, and to be flexible with their schedule when there is a no-show. So far the customer-first approach has led to very long open hours – should an “employee-second” approach lead us to reconsider this model and reduce open hours, in order to improve the quality of life for employees and enable us to keep our talents?

Liz Adamson
BrainTrust

Diversity in the workplace brings various opinions and experiences which often leads to better decisions as multiple perspectives and ideas are considered in making those decisions. If retailers are serious about maintaining diversity they need to look at what it’s going to take to do that. Women do often bear the burden of the majority of household and childcare responsibilities, and during this pandemic in areas where school is now online, they are now bearing the burden of their children’s education as well. Family friendly policies that help women balance home and work responsibilities will need to be implemented to keep them in the workforce. Flexible schedules, paid time off, allowing a full time employee to temporarily go part time, or perhaps even a stipend to help pay for some childcare while kids are not in school.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I believe this is more of a cultural issue than a retail issue. Yes, women have made considerable progress in the workplace over the last decades. But they have not made similar progress at home.

By most measures and by most men (and too many women) women are still responsible for the “homemaking” activities. I could not imagine the pressure related to that if the roles were reversed.

Brett Busconi
Guest

Yes – for sure. With the reality of COVID-19 household implications lasting into/through Q1 2021 staring at us, all industries (and particularly retail) should be concerned about losing female employees. With the majority of household care still left with women as the responsible parties there are many day-to-day scenarios that face women which men are, many times, not dealing with in the same way.

I have yet to speak with any women with school-aged children who are not severely impacted by what is happening. All companies need to seek understanding of a person’s situation and how their role/hours could potentially be worked to allow for responsibilities to be met. At the same time I am shocked at how many people (men or women) I speak with who have grown or no children who do not have empathy for this situation.

Take the needed action or we will see many valuable leaders leaving companies who need them.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

This is indicative of a couple issues that are larger than retail. The first that comes to mind is the availability of child care the U.S. The fact that we don’t support working families with accessible and safe child care, forcing them to make tough choices between lifestyle and career is a problem in my book. The other issue I see is that we still assume, on a societal level, that women are responsible for child care. This study perpetuates the idea that only women have to make the choice between family and career, men somehow do not. We still have a lot of work to do in this country on issues of family and gender equity.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

It is hard to imagine retail without or with few female associates. Females direct many or most of the purchases in a family’s household. Specific categories of retail, especially fashion retailing of apparel, according to Statistica, “was valued at approximately 368 Billion U.S. dollars as of 2019.” The retail reality — females are the predominant purchasers of apparel for themselves, children, and husbands.

Retail has a business decision to make. Many sales associates earn $15 or less per hour. Child care per hour, with even one child, costs as much or more than $15 per hour. Staffing stores with students and retirees are not a long-term solution to grow and develop a robust and engaged female workforce to nurture future female retail leaders.

Retailers seriously need to consider the effect on the challenges to ROI of a male dominated retail workforce, especially in apparel. Alternatively, how is ROI effected by the loss of vital female to female interactions between female associates and the female customers they serve?

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

It sounds like the issue isn’t really women, “per se,” but rather women in management (women more generally might be an issue as well, but then again a reduction in the work force might mesh nicely with greater automation and use of AI).

Yes it’s a concern, both generally, since personal time off has been flagged as a major reason for gender disparity(ies) and specifically, at the company level it’s actual people with special skillsets leaving, not some abstraction. But what to do about it? Obviously inducements to stay can be offered, particularly if they encourage a greater equality in households between men and women deciding to stay home. But ultimately there may not be much companies can “do” about it. These are individual decisions, presumably being made rationally — and often in reaction to extraordinary situations — and the implication that the company rather than the person should control the situation is more than a little paternalistic.

Kim DeCarlis
BrainTrust

According to Forbes, women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions, so losing female employees should always be of grave concern to retailers. While it’s unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to bring this concern to the fore, retailers need to take this moment to assess their total employee rewards programs and provided updated options that are meaningful to all employees. Importantly, this includes men who could utilize innovative benefits to relieve stress on a wife or partner. Benefits could range from more flexible work hours to child care and education stipends, coordination of home school helpers and even meal delivery services. Retailers will find that small changes to keep women in the workforce will have long term dividends.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

We are all adjusting to a new way of life, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been so disruptive on many fronts. Families are challenged to home school kids, work from home, and navigate a new normal that is changing by the day. Parenting is a true partnership, and with a more remote model for the foreseeable future, we have seen husbands stepping up and taking on more responsibilities on the home front.

It is very concerning and disappointing to see the lack of female leadership in the retail industry. There is a lot to balance at home, and through a partnership and dividing responsibilities, and even leveraging in-laws, etc, companies have provided more flexibility to help sustain and retain their talented employees.

The phrase “it takes a village” is so relevant today.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retailers should be concerned and need to support women to help them alleviate some of the stress."
"According to Forbes, women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions, so losing female employees should always be of grave concern to retailers."
"Retail has a business decision to make. Many sales associates earn $15 or less per hour. Child care per hour, with even one child, costs as much or more than $15 per hour."

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