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As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we have an opportunity to review the many contributions women have made to every aspect of our society and look ahead at the evolving challenges and opportunities that will require female engagement and leadership. A recurring challenge that has manifested itself in the economy has been the wage disparity that exists between men and women in the workplace. While significant progress has been made in closing the gap, challenges remain.

It is in this context that we caught up with Gwenn Rosener, CEO of FlexProfessionals – a recruiting and staffing agency for professionals that serves the Washington DC and Boston metropolitan areas — to explore the role of workplace flexibility in bridging the gender pay gap. Here is what she had to say:

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This Q&A has been edited for length. Listen to the full audio interview with Gwenn Rosener here.]

Q: Thank you, Gwenn, for taking the time to chat. Perhaps we could just start by asking you to provide an update on the current state of what the gender wage gap is today? 

Gwenn Rosener: It’s a timely topic that is at the core of what we’re working on here at FlexProfessionals. So, on average, if you’re a working woman, you earn about 18% less today than a man. However, if you’re in the age group of 25 to 54 — which is prime working age — the gap is down to the point where women earn about 8% less than men.

The good news is that we’ve made a lot of progress in narrowing that gap. We’re very fortunate to have the work of Claudia Goldin, who just won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work studying women in the labor force. Her work shows that over the past two centuries — if we go back to the 1800s — we’ve been chipping away at the gap. We’ve been breaking down the barriers that held women back, including access to education, their occupational choices, the career paths they follow, and social norms.

However, one of the significant stubborn barriers that remain revolves around the interruptions that often occur over a woman’s career. These are mainly due to caregiving responsibilities and the fact that women still shoulder a disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities. These interruptions, to care for children and increasingly, now, aging parents, or sometimes both at the same time — have consequences.

They can result in career breaks, scaled-back hours, and time away from work. As a result, women experience decreases in earnings, setbacks in their earning potential, and, often, a loss of confidence. Some women drop out of lucrative fields, such as the STEM professions, feeling that they have lost ground and will never be able to catch up.

What is now clear is that the severity and duration of interruptions and disruptions have largely been driven by a lack of flexibility in the workplace, which has contributed to the inability of women to stay in their jobs while juggling parenting and other caregiving responsibilities.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for employers to prioritize bridging the gender pay gap? 

Rosener: Employers today face a very tight talent market, and demographic trends aren’t on their side.

This baby boomer bubble — which represents about 25% of our workforce — is moving through the pipeline. They will be basically out of the workforce within the next decade or a decade and a half.

Meanwhile, birth rates in this country are declining. We’re currently at 1.67 births per woman.

Finally, there is immigration, but it’s just not going to make up for the traction we’re losing in growing our workforce — especially in white-collar professions.

If you look at the millennial generation, it is the most educated generation of women — and probably the most successful generation of women in business — in our country’s history.

Women now account for almost 60% of college graduates. Women’s workforce participation rate has also hit a record level as men’s workforce participation declines. Women are hugely important and on the rise in our workforce.

If employers want to recruit and keep them, they must enable women to continue progressing in their careers while juggling caregiving responsibilities.

By the way, the whole caregiving phenomenon and the need for flexibility is not just a woman’s issue anymore. It’s going to affect all of us – women and men – as the baby boomer generation ages. Many baby boomers haven’t saved enough for retirement. According to at least one statistic, 40% have not saved at all for retirement, which surely means they haven’t saved enough for outsourced caregiving. We’re all going to need some flexibility to be able to care for our aging parents.

While bridging the gender pay gap is crucial for creating a more equitable and inclusive workforce, it is also the key to bridging the talent gap. By addressing the gender pay gap, employers can attract and retain talented women and address the demographic challenges that many employers already face today. These challenges will become an even more acute problem in the future. Workplace flexibility is one of the biggest factors — if not the biggest one — in addressing these issues. 

Q: What are the consequences of ignoring — or paying short-shrift — to flexibility in the workplace? 

Rosener: There are costs and opportunity costs of not addressing flexibility in the workplace. Most employers know how painful it is to lose a valued employee and have to find a replacement.

There is the time and resources spent recruiting, training, and developing a new employee. There is lost productivity and potentially compromised customer relationships, not to mention the knowledge that goes out the door when somebody leaves to take a career break or go to a more flexible company.

Those are the hard costs.

The opportunity costs revolve around the fact that, in today’s tight labor market, not being seen as female-friendly may prevent a company from being able to access this important slice of the workforce for critical positions.

One area experiencing talent availability challenges is the field of accounting. About 75% of CPAs are now at retirement age, and young people aren’t entering that field in the same numbers as previous generations. Instead, they’re picking other quantitative fields — like data analytics — that are more lucrative. They also don’t have to deal with all those onerous continuing education requirements.

That said, there are a lot of women in accounting, and if you don’t have a work environment that is appealing to them, you’re simply not going to get them.

Let me share a case in point. We have been working recently with a relatively small biotech company. The CEO needs an accountant, but he has rigid in-office work policies. We’ve spent six months trying to place accountants for him.

We have no problems finding qualified candidates. The issue is that most of them refuse to go into the office full-time. They are willing to commit to hybrid arrangements or work remotely.

The CEO, however, won’t budge. As a result, the position remains open, which means that he’s doing most of his bookkeeping and accounting himself instead of focusing on growing his company.

Q: What should employers do to enhance flexibility in the workplace? 

Rosener: The first step employers should take is assessing if there is turnover in the female ranks and why. They should also look at unfilled positions that could be readily filled with women and determine why women may not be interested.

If a problem exists, leadership needs to define a business case for flexibility to build buy-in by decision makers including hiring managers and talent acquisition functions.

While there is no prescribed optimal flexible working environment, we have seen the most success when organizations implement flexibility strategies on a job-by-job or group-by-group basis, empowering individuals and departmental teams to define what flexible arrangements work best to maximize their collective productivity.

This approach should extend beyond women and caregivers to include other professionals who benefit from flexibility, including those close to retirement who may want part-time or remote work options. 

Q: As the flexible workplace becomes a more mainstream concept, how does this impact bridging the gender wage gap? 

Rosener: Thanks to what is perhaps the only silver lining of the COVID pandemic, we may be at a point where a critical mass of companies have developed a different mindset around caregivers and caregiving.

Most companies now have the tools to implement flexible work options. As a result, we may have broken the log jam that has kept the gender wage gap static over the past couple of decades. We have a real chance of continuing to chip away at the wage gap.

But to do that, we must ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing back in the other direction. We are seeing many employers now insist on having their workforce spend more time in the office. In some cases, they are going all the way back to having everybody in the office full-time.

That would be a trend that is bad for all of us but bad for women in particular. And it would be really awful for closing the gender wage gap. 

How is FlexProfessionals engaging with the marketplace to bridge the flexibility gap, the gender pay gap, and the performance gap? 

Rosener: When my two partners and I launched FlexProfessionals 14 years ago — way before the pandemic — we did not have evidence for what is now self-evident. We didn’t, for instance, have the Claudia Goldin study or the lessons learned from the pandemic.

But we knew in our gut that one of the main reasons women were dropping out of the workforce and not being able to return at the same pay levels or to the same level of responsibility was a lack of flexibility.

At FlexProfessionals, we specialize in placing professionals with at least ten years of work experience. Half of our candidate pool has a master’s degree or higher, including PhDs. These are very accomplished professionals. We place them with employers that offer some form of flexibility, from part-time work to full-time remote or hybrid arrangements.

We have offices in DC and Boston; between those two markets, we have about 26,000 professionals registered with us. Approximately 90% of them are women, but that is starting to morph as other workforce segments benefit from working in more flexible environments.

We are also ensuring that employers see the business case for flexibility. Our firm works with smaller organizations that may not be able to afford exceptionally qualified professionals on a full-time basis.

But we also work with larger businesses to fill mostly full-time remote or hybrid jobs with qualified professionals while supporting — and improving — their gender diversity strategies.

That, in a nutshell, is FlexProfessionals.

 

Gwenn Rosener, CEO and co-founder of FlexProfessionals.