Women now outnumber men in the workplace. What does that mean for the future of work?

Companies are looking at how to make their workplaces work for everybody

03 marzo 2020

With gender equality taking center stage as International Women’s Day rolls around this year, one change in the workplace is too big to ignore.

Women now officially outnumber men in workplaces across the U.S., according to the country’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data released in December showed that women hold 50.04% of all available positions. That .04% equates to over 100,000 more women working.

“The scales have tipped, at least in terms of sheer numbers,” says Julia Georgules, JLL’s Senior Director of Research for the East Coast and Canada. “That said, more women in the workplace does not automatically equate to workplaces that are ideal for women or a more diverse workforce in general.”

While the gender pay gap has become a rallying cry in recent years, the disparity hasn’t shrunk. When companies don’t have flexible policies that leave room for the childcare responsibilities that still more often fall to women, it can limit career opportunities. Harassment at work remains a stark issue.

“Companies need to take note and make changes to their work environment and culture to support women,” Georgules says. “We’re not likely to see the number of women working reverse.”

There have been advancements, and some helpful tweaks are relatively simple, such as avoiding the over-air-conditioning that some refer to as women’s winter.

But there are other challenges not yet being addressed, especially where “changes are more complex,” Georgules says. “We’re venturing into an era where workspaces will be incredibly customized, and that means giving women the workplace environment and culture they need to succeed.”

Flexibility is key

Many companies are already providing a level of personalization aimed at women.

Take remote working, which allows employees to work from home or anywhere else. While this can have benefits for any gender, women are 40 percent more likely to be the partner who will triage work schedules to manage family emergencies or take care of sick children, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress.

Many companies have made their biggest strides in accepting and adopting more flexible schedules — a reality that frees up employees to build work around their lives instead of vice versa, says Mandy Seyfried, Senior Research Analyst for JLL in the Rocky Mountain region.

“A growing number of employees of all genders are seeking the flexibility that allows them to be more involved with childcare and domestic responsibilities,” she says. “The more flexible an employer is from the beginning — the more getting work done is favored over which particular hours are worked, and the more work/life balance is supported culturally — the less a woman will feel like she has to choose between family and career.”

Changes and challenges

Many challenges stem from balancing family and work life, making them especially pertinent to parents.

For new mothers returning to work, private “lactation spaces” can make a real difference. Sascha Mayer, CEO and co-founder of Mamava, says “companies that offer this type of amenity send a message to all employees, whether they are parents or not, that the employer is committed to taking care of the whole person.”

Parental leave when a child is born is one of the biggest changes that employers are engineering to attract and retain the growing number of women in the workforce. Although some firms offer new parents six months of maternity or paternity leave, that amount of time off is more the exception than the norm — as is bereavement leave for miscarriage, Seyfried says.

A further step up is on-site childcare. The majority of American parents with one or more children younger than 6 say they have a hard time finding and affording high-quality childcare, according to a Pew Research Center study.

But not everything is connected to parenting. Case in point: office temperature.

In 2019, a litany of studies that proved women like rooms warmer than men, and women’s cognitive functions decline when they — or a room — get too cold. Factoring in this preference could also have sustainability benefits, since air conditioning is the fastest-growing use of energy in buildings, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Transforming the basic environment so women aren’t uncomfortable will start to grow in relevance more and more,” says Georgules, who envisions individual, flexible spaces, some with closable doors and standalone thermal controls. “There’s only so much you can do to address these issues on a broad scale since every individual is different.”

Thinking bigger

The workday, in many ways, was created based on men’s biological rhythms, says Alisa Vitti, author of the book In the FLO and an expert in women’s hormones. After all, “women were excluded from working in the corporate setting until the 1960s,” she says.

But men and women are different, and those differences can have a big impact on how they work.

All genders have a circadian biological rhythm, which runs on a 24-hour cycle. For men, this biological rhythm has their testosterone and cortisol peaking in the morning, which is why men often “get up early, do big workouts, and get right into deep work first thing,” Vitti says.

But women during their reproductive years have a second biological rhythm in addition to their circadian daily rhythm. It’s called the infradian rhythm, experienced over a month, says Vitti, who does training sessions at corporations like Hearst and has presented at SXSW on how women can incorporate this cycle into their project planning. 

The infradian rhythm impacts six key systems of the body, two of which, the brain and the stress response system, deeply impact work, Vitti says. Where women are in the four phases of this rhythm causes shifts in their metabolism, stress response, and even preferred creative focus.

“Women can organize their diet, workouts, and even their projects to optimize and leverage their infradian rhythm,” Vitti says. “The female brain provides unique cognitive gifts.”

Companies would be wise to consider holistically all the changes that are possible, ultimately making workplaces friendlier to women, says Georgules.

“Sheer numbers suggest they must,” she says. “But numbers alone don’t create change. It has to be a cultural shift.”