We've been on a slow crawl out of an economic downturn for several years now. In order for the economy to continue to rebound, there must be an increase in workforce participation.

This includes women, whose participation in the workforce peaked at 60% in 1999 and has been on the decline ever since. But just asking women to come back to the workforce is not that simple.

There are a lot of complicated reasons why women aren't participating in the workforce at the same numbers they were in 1999, and employers have to understand and be willing to address those reasons.

Women are the unpaid caretakers

Studies show that 75% of unpaid caregivers are women. Women put careers on hold to raise children, care for aging parents, and generally fill in wherever needed. Women are twice as likely as men to work only part-time, and 34% of stay-at-home mothers live in poverty compared to just 12% of mothers who work outside the home.

And it's not just married women who are staying home out of necessity: 14% of single mothers say they are staying home because they cannot find suitable work. Balancing the demands of caretaking and a career is tough, but it's tougher when employers don't understand the work/life balance needs of women who act as caretakers.

Companies benefit from diversity

According to Gallup, gender-diverse retail operations have 14% higher revenues, and gender- diverse service sector operations have 19% higher quarterly net profits than their non-gender- diverse counterparts. According to the study, gender diversity is important because:

  • Business performance is improved when there are multiple points of view and market insights on which to base business decisions.
  • Gender diversity provides greater breadth of knowledge and information sources.
  • As the customer base becomes more diverse, the workforce will need to follow suit.
  • In order to be able to participate in the global economy, more women will need to participate in the workforce. Already having women in leadership positions is the best way to attract more women to your workforce.

How policy changes can help

There are high-profile tech companies in Silicon Valley that pay to have female employees' eggs frozen so they can focus on their careers, but not all support has to be that extreme. For the vast majority of companies, there are simple things they can do to support the women in their workforces. According to She Can Code, some of the most important and effective tweaks include:

Flexible Schedules: "With the added social pressure on mothers in particular to be robot-efficient in being a mother and working, a heavy work schedule is the bane of their existence. An easy solution? Flexible schedules. This gives women more freedom to plan their families into the picture."

Parental Leave: "Offering maternity leave is already one major incentive to attract top female talent. In the past, women have faced employment discrimination as companies are not as inclined to invest in someone who might leave for several months. This has left women more eager to join corporations that offer maternity leave, thus eliminating the risks of being fired from their job if they do decide to have children.

But paternity leave would also benefit the family as a whole. It would give both parents a chance to spend time with their infant. They would be working as a team, thereby removing the social convention that caring for a child is only the woman's responsibility."

Nothing upset my wife more with the birth of our second child than the complete lack of a paternity leave I was afforded by the company I worked for. While I was given "time off" I was under the gun to perform and inundated with requests the whole time. I wasn't able to support my wife like I was able to with our first child when I worked for a different company that gave me real paternity leave with actual time off.

My wife still gets pissed if I bring it up, and rightfully so.

Women In Leadership: "If a career-driven woman is looking to get ahead and all she sees is a glass ceiling blocking her way, chances are she will not waste her talent or potential on a company that won't appreciate it."

Supporting working mothers is good for families and for business

A University of Akron study recently found that women who return to work after recovering from giving birth report higher mental and physical health by age 40, while a Gallup poll shows that 63% of working mothers report they are thriving. Supporting women is supporting families, and women who are happier and healthier are going to make better employees.

One of the often overlooked things that is keeping many women from returning to work when they may otherwise be ready is lack of support for breastfeeding. Federal law protects a woman's right to pump at work for up to one year after the birth of her child, but many women are returning to work to find their companies aren't aware of these guidelines. Just look at the social media movement #IPumpedHere to see some of the places working mothers are preparing meals for their children.

Supporting working mothers in the workplace is one crucial step to ensuring their participation and long-term success in the workplace, and if you do one thing to advance this cause today, it should be coming up with a plan for pumping in the workplace to show the working women in your company you support them.

Learn more about breastfeeding rights in the United States from this infographic from Registered Nursing.

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