The pandemic has made a lasting impact on the workplace and has taken a toll on women's participation in the labor force. According to a jobs report by the National Women's Law Center, since February 2020, women have lost over 5.3 million jobs.

As we honor Women's Equality Day, we must look at what it means to be an equitable leader and how we can support women in returning to the labor force amid a year and a half of immense change and uncertainty.

I also believe more males in high-level leadership roles must raise awareness about the powerful concept of "allyship." Allies can identify the mistreatment and subjugation of underrepresented groups and support efforts to promote inclusion. Executive-level allies have a distinct advantage in being able to lend support and break down barriers holding back women and minorities from advancing at work.

To get a better perspective on the solutions needed, I sought advice from female executives, who weighed in on what it will take to help women to prosper in the workplace.

1. Leaders must set the tone for balance in the workplace

"We need gender diversity in the workplace and especially in leadership [because] the differing perspectives make an environment more productive and healthier. To achieve this diversity in our current world, it's critical for leaders, both male and female, to lead by example when it comes to balance in the workplace," said Maureen "Mo" Taylor, co-founder and CEO at SNP Communications. "We have one life. We can have it all, just not always all on the same day. When leaders set the tone that balance is OK -- where one day kids are the priority and the next day a work problem takes more focus -- it allows all employees of all genders to embrace their full lives."

2. Prioritize the shifting needs of women in the workforce

"Home-life requirements of women have morphed during this time. Leaders need to place importance on gender diversity, equity, and inclusion, and make cultural and benefits enhancements to welcome women back," said Elizabeth Chrane, chief people officer at OneDigital. "New community channels such as Employee Resource Groups, transitioning to a flexible working environment, women-led mentorship opportunities, and financial assistance programs are all important in creating the best environment for female team members to return to and feel supported." 

3. Prioritize inclusive benefits

"While many companies have prioritized DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] over the last year, some have not taken the steps to promote inclusivity and equity from a benefits perspective," said Annie Lin, VP of people at Lever. "To encourage women, and all genders for that matter, to rejoin the workforce, companies need to provide the alternative benefits that allow all employees to thrive at work and in their personal lives. Adding new benefits such as inclusive parental leave for all employees, child care assistance, and infertility benefits can help companies make strides in creating more inclusive workplaces."

4. Provide flexible opportunities for upskilling

"Encouraging women to rejoin the workforce goes beyond benefits. Leaders need to implement programs that allow women to re-skill for new opportunities and grow in their career on their own time," said Jeri Herman, senior vice president of human resources at Cengage Group. "Garnering new opportunities in their role, or even changing careers to meet the needs of new hiring demands, often requires time-consuming and expensive degree programs, but providing upskilling opportunities and on-the-job training will allow women the flexibility needed to flourish in the workforce."

5. Facilitate deeper conversations

"HR leaders need to remember there's no one single answer to bring women back to work because we're not a one-size-fits-all demographic. The more important strategy is to ask, before assuming," said Katie Evans-Reber, VP of people and culture at Wonolo. "I'm a big believer in creating safe spaces for women and mothers, and facilitating deeper conversations about what women need in order to remain in the workforce. By doing so, you can create camaraderie among women, and, in turn, women then go on to refer other women to the company, thereby creating a virtuous cycle to get more women back to work."