How we can help women bounce back into the workforce

Lindsay Pattison, global chief client officer, WPP
Lindsay Pattison, global chief client officer, WPP

Companies can tackle inequality by making it clear that women are supported and have the resources they need to grow.

The impact the pandemic has had on women in the workforce is hard to digest.

Women are more frequently employed in sectors directly disrupted by lockdowns, such as hospitality and education, which have resulted in both higher unemployment and a more challenging re-entry. Many women have also been forced to choose between their careers and taking care of their families during the crisis, with stats showing that women are three times more likely to sacrifice their career for family than men. 

In the last year, we have watched decades of progress in gender equality come undone. 

And yet – I believe there is reason for hope. 

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Fortune 500 has more women CEOs than ever before. AMD’s CEO Lisa Su was the first woman to rank at the top of the Associated Press’ 2020 annual survey of CEO compensation. 

Thirty-nine companies in the FTSE 100 now have 40% or more women on their boards, according to The Hampton-Alexander Review, tasked by the UK government to ensure women in business are recognized, promoted and rewarded. And a record 144 women are in the U.S. Congress, with Kamala Harris as its first female Vice President. 

That’s not to mention the plethora of female role models at the moment: Stacey Abrams, Greta Thunberg, Amanda Gorman, Jacinda Arden, Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, among others.

 Barriers have been broken, but we need to carry this momentum forward to create a lasting equitable future. Here are three ways we can turn hope into action:

1. Give women resources to succeed

Companies can tackle inequality head on by making it clear that women are supported and have the resources they need to grow.

The work that Walgreens has fearlessly done with their No7 brand is a brilliant example of how a company can raise awareness, improve women’s lives and provide crucial resources to turn the SHEcession into a SHEcovery. 

The “Unstoppable Together” campaign includes a female-produced film that highlights the economic burdens women carry, while pointing to progress and optimism. In partnership with The Female Quotient, Hello Sunshine and Fortune, the company hosted a free, virtual job summit in February featuring a diverse, inspirational lineup of women luminaries who shared their own stories of struggle and success. No7 has also pledged thousands of dollars in free coaching sessions in partnership with The Female Quotient. 

Brands need to be clear and engaging about how they intend to support the women in their companies and break down barriers to opportunities.

2. Make remote work really work for women

The pandemic made flexible work a reality, making work accessible to a broader pool of talent, including parents and people with caring responsibilities. That can help to create a more diverse and engaged workforce moving forward. This is long overdue for career women who often play a dual role as caregiver. 

We need to support women with policies that help them continue their careers while complementing their many other responsibilities (a development that will benefit men, too). Let’s draw on the lessons we’ve learned from COVID and continue to harness the power of technology to create a more equitable future for women.

Airbnb has approached this issue creatively. The platform estimates that since the start of the pandemic, new female Hosts have collectively earned more than $600 million. The platform’s Experiences division, launched at the start of the pandemic, is composed of 51% women, 35% of whom joined to replace lost income. 

Twenty-three percent of these women say Airbnb is now their primary source of income, allowing them to provide for their families and achieve financial independence in a flexible way.

3. Invest in diverse talent

Investing in diverse talent and empowering people to be their full selves at work is thankfully becoming the norm. But if companies are to be successful, they need to create opportunities for totally different and often underrepresented talent. 

This is particularly important in the pandemic. The U.S. unemployment rate in February was 9.1% for Black women and 8.6% for Latina women, compared to 5.2% for white women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The pandemic has made us painfully aware of the extreme disparity that women of color face.

To tap into these communities and encourage talent who perhaps hadn’t considered a career in advertising, WPP is partnering with organizations such as The One Club and The LAGRANT Foundation in the US, and Brixton Finishing School and Rare Recruitment in the UK.  

This isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s crucial for the continued success of our industry. Diverse companies are 75% more likely to bring innovative ideas to market, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. If we’re to become the most client-centric organization in the world — my overall business goal — delivering innovative ideas representative of all people and cultures is critical. 

We also need to ensure people can thrive once they’ve hired. Google’s #IamRemarkable initiative, for example, aims to improve women’s self-promotion skills by challenging social perceptions and gender modesty norms. Eighty-two percent of participants reported feeling more confident after attending the workshop, and more than 800 companies have now brought it to their organizations. At WPP, we have stolen with pride and are rolling it out globally with heartfelt thanks to Google.

As employers, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are celebratory, diverse and inclusive in our work to reflect women’s full potential. With the steps outlined above, we will get more brilliant women back to work and ensure they are valued and fulfilled once there.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: “We may encounter defeats, but we will not be defeated.”

Lindsay Pattison is Global Chief Client Officer at WPP.


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