No one had it easy during the pandemic, but the data shows that women may have had a harder time than men.

At the end of 2020, women held 5.4 million fewer jobs than they had in February 2020, before the pandemic began. Meanwhile, men lost 4.4 million jobs over that same time period. While working-age women overall have largely recovered since the depths of the pandemic, mothers have repaired their losses more slowly. As of July 2021, nearly one million fewer mothers were actively working than in July 2020, according to Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the Census Bureau.

There are things employers can do to help. In a panel discussion on Tuesday hosted by the Independent Women's Forum, a national organization dedicated to developing and advancing policies for women, experts discussed what employers can do to keep their female employees, especially those with children, on the payroll. Here are three things women say they want.

1. Accessible child care.

Many of the current struggles women face derive from finding adequate and affordable child care, said Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that researches government, politics, economics, and social welfare. She noted that many employer policies don't completely meet a family's needs, such as providing access to a convenient child care provider. It's also not particular to the pandemic. Rachidi pointed out that workplaces should be focusing on policies that offer more flexible, more affordable options, as opposed to just blanket child care subsidies.

"I think that that's where our focus should be," said Rachidi. "It should be not only our government policies, but also our workplace policies to make child care better, and meet the needs of families."

2. Workplace flexibility.

Flexibility is vital to all working parents, not just mothers. But mothers are often quicker to express a desire to have the flexibility to work a reduced schedule, if need be, said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. So if the goal is to keep working parents on the payroll, or get them back, allow them time off during the day if needed, or the ability to structure their own hours. 

If you've offered more flexibility during the pandemic, think about maintaining those policies or asking employees their thoughts on new schedules. "The pandemic has allowed employers to see that they're able to have these policies. And not only the paid family leave, but the remote work and the flexibility. And I think it will become a silver lining coming out of all of this," said Greszler.

3. Paid time off.

Paid time off is useful for parents, who need the time to care for an infant or an ill loved one. President Biden's American Families Plan includes $225 billion to create a paid medical and family leave program. The program will eventually guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave, providing a federal subsidy for workers of up to $4,000 per month. The Department of Labor found that 95 percent of the lowest-wage workers, mostly women and workers of color, lack any access to paid family leave, so the program is needed. 

But to keep women in the workforce long-term, you should offer both paid leave and increased flexibility, said Greszler. Because paid family leave, while necessary, may have a lower utility for women on a day-to-day basis than, say, malleable hours.

"I don't think [a lack of] paid family leave is holding women back," said Greszler. "Women increasingly value flexibility far more than family leave."

Even so, both policies can be done. And the balance of the two may also help employees be more productive. In 2019, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation decided its generous 52-week paid parental leave policy was not working because too many workers would be out at the same time, creating more disruption that it was worth. Instead, the organization decided to offer half as much paid leave and a $20,000 stipend to new parents to help cover expenses and child care.