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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Equal care, equal share: Bridging the care gap in leadership 

Published 12 June 2024 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 6 min read

Women often step back from their careers because caring responsibilities usually fall on them by default, thanks to outdated societal norms.

In today’s workplace, we confront a pivotal barrier to gender equality – the care gap. I’ve often said, “We are losing our best leaders to caregiving,” which predominantly impacts women, especially those in what I call the “messy middle,” when they’re balancing increasing responsibilities at work with those at home.

During these times women are most likely to step back from their careers, leading to a significant drop off in female leadership. This challenge is increasingly heightened when corporations have inadequate parental leave policies.

A report by the U.S. Department of Labor unveils that caregiving can slash a mother’s lifetime earnings by an average of 15%, diminishing not only their immediate income but also their long-term financial security, including retirement savings. Additionally, the Family Caregiver Alliance quantifies this impact, estimating that female caregivers can lose up to $324,044 in wages and Social Security benefits over their lifetimes. An astounding 69% of working caregivers have to adjust their work schedules, reduce hours, or even take unpaid leave to manage their caregiving duties, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

gender pay gap
Caregiving can slash a mother's lifetime earnings by an average of 15%

In the United States, studies by the Center for American Progress show that caregiving-related job losses cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and tax revenue. Businesses lose valuable talent and expertise, while the tax base shrinks due to reduced income from women leaving or scaling back their careers.

This is more than a personal challenge; it reflects entrenched societal norms and outdated business practices that affect us all. Achieving true equality at work starts with shared responsibilities at home, enabling both men and women to thrive professionally and personally.

The care gap isn’t just a national issue: it affects women and businesses worldwide. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), globally, women perform an estimated 7.6 times more unpaid care work than men every day. This translates to a staggering 12.5 billion hours of additional care work shouldered by women annually. This unequal distribution of caregiving responsibilities hinders women’s economic opportunities worldwide and has a ripple effect on global development.

A 2020 McKinsey & Company report estimates that closing the gender care gap could add a whopping $2.5tn to the global GDP by 2025. This additional economic output highlights the significant contribution women can make when societal barriers are addressed.

Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland exemplify progressive parental leave that fosters gender equality and boosts labor market participation. For instance, Sweden allows parents to share up to 480 days of leave, supporting economic stability for families and gender balance in caregiving. These nations also offer universal, subsidized childcare; in Sweden, costs are capped relative to household income, enhancing accessibility. Such policies not only retain talent but also drive economic growth, demonstrating a sustainable model of family support.

work and home balance
“Companies that implement caregiver support programs experience positive outcomes.”

Addressing the care gap is not only good for our people, it’s good for business. We recognize that today’s most effective leaders are often caregivers, embodying empathy and compassion – essential traits for modern leadership.

Here are a few strategies to attract and retain our best caregivers:

  • Flexible work arrangements: Remote work options, flexible scheduling, and compressed workweeks empower employees to manage work and personal commitments more effectively, enhancing daily work-life integration.
  • On-site childcare: Providing childcare facilities at the workplace can be a game-changer for parents, allowing them to focus on their work while their children are well-cared for nearby.
  • Eldercare support: Programs that offer eldercare resources, such as referrals to assisted living facilities or adult daycare services, can ease the burden on employees who are juggling work and caring for aging family members.
  • Backup care programs: Providing access to reliable backup childcare or eldercare can be a lifesaver for unexpected situations or emergencies.
  • Life stage accommodation: We’re redefining the concept of parental leave by transcending traditional boundaries. This approach is not just about adhering to the textbook policies; it’s for parents seeking to stretch beyond these confines. We recognize there’s no “one size fits all” model when it comes to balancing work and personal life. Our flexible life stage accommodations allow employees to tailor their work schedules to align with their evolving life stage needs – whether that’s starting work later, customizing hours, or taking leave as needed. This flexibility enables individuals to seamlessly integrate their professional responsibilities with personal milestones, supporting them in managing both without having to choose one over the other. After all, we’re crafting a workplace where life doesn’t fit into a policy – it shapes it.

Companies that implement caregiver support programs experience positive outcomes. A study by Catalyst found that businesses with strong work-life balance programs have higher employee retention rates, increased productivity, and improved employee engagement.

Businesses with strong work-life balance programs have higher employee retention rates, increased productivity, and improved employee engagement.

Mitie, a facilities management company, boasts advanced flexible working arrangements and generous carers’ leave policies, demonstrating a commitment to supporting employees with caregiving obligations. Bank of America sets a high standard for US-based companies with its 16-week paid parental leave, allowing new parents time to adjust without sacrificing their career momentum.

Tech giant Salesforce not only offers remote work options but also a variety of leave options and resources to support employees presenting personal and professional needs, including volunteering support and eldercare assistance. Patagonia, known for its commitment to environmental responsibility, also prioritizes employee wellbeing. It offers innovative leave options, including on-site childcare, while cultivating a culture that promotes and values a healthy work-life balance.

Of course, not every company will have the resources to offer the same type of support. But closing the gender care gap isn’t just about individual companies; it’s a societal shift that requires collective action. And with major corporations leading the way by demonstrating innovative solutions to support their workforce better, the necessary cultural shift is sure to follow. For those small businesses, startups, freelancers, and entrepreneurs who don’t yet have the financial means to adopt certain solutions, there are a myriad of ways to contribute to a more equitable future.

For example, speaking up about the care gap and encouraging policymakers to enact legislation that supports working families; being part of the shifting narrative where caregiving is positively reframed as a shared responsibility and not just in the female domain; and building an inclusive workplace where companies actively promote a culture of inclusion where all employees feel comfortable using caregiver support program and feel free to take the time needed to be there for their families. And remember, it starts at the top.

We can’t wait for governments. If companies design workplaces that allow caregivers to thrive, everyone will rise.

By embracing these changes, both big and small, we will create a future of work where caregiving responsibilities don’t hinder career advancement. When caregivers have the support they need to thrive at home and in the workplace, it benefits everyone. Companies gain access to a broader talent pool, employees experience greater job satisfaction and work-life balance, and society as a whole reaps the rewards of a more inclusive and productive workforce.

Let’s not just adapt to the future; let’s define it. Together, we can bridge the care gap and unlock the full potential of our leadership pipeline, ensuring that both men and women have the opportunity to excel in their careers while nurturing their families. Equality is not just possible; it’s essential for a thriving future.

Authors

Shelly Zalis

Shelley Zalis

Founder and CEO of The Female Quotient

Shelley Zalis is an unwavering advocate for gender equality and an influential voice in redefining leadership for the modern era. As the Founder and CEO of The Female Quotient, Zalis works tirelessly to close the gender gap and create workplaces where caregiving is celebrated as a cornerstone of leadership, not a barrier to success.

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