The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on women in the workplace. In fact, two years into the crisis, the National Women's Law Center reports that 1.1 million women are still missing from the labor force.
Women's economic future has looked grim throughout the pandemic – but despite this downturn, more women are eager to advance in their careers, rejoin the workforce and pursue new opportunities than last year.
Nearly 50% of women consider themselves "very ambitious" and are optimistic about their career growth, according to CNBC and Momentive's new Women at Work survey. Of the more than 4,800 women participants, 20% said their career has advanced in the past six months, up from 14% in March 2021. More than a third of working women said they are "very satisfied" with the opportunities at their current job.
There are some glimmers of hope in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest jobs report as well: 51% of the new positions created in February went to women, who made significant job gains in the education, health services and leisure and hospitality industries.
"A lot of the trends toward remote, flexible working that companies have embraced over the past two years are changes that women have been wanting forever," Runa Knapp, the co-founder and business director at Connectalent, a recruiting platform that helps women find jobs, says. "It levels the playing field for women balancing jobs and caregiving responsibilities and opens the door to new career paths that might not have been an option pre-pandemic."
CNBC Make It spoke with Knapp and Georgene Huang, the co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss, an online career platform for women, about what's driving the rebound in women's ambition and why workplace flexibility is a double-edged sword.
Connectalent has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking new jobs on its platform: In the past 11 months, applications surged 50% from the previous year.
So, what's changed? Knapp points to two possible causes, starting with plummeting Covid cases throughout much of the United States. "Women were forced to leave the workforce in droves to care for their children stuck at home and vulnerable relatives," she says.
When broken down by child-care responsibilities, ambition increased more significantly for women with younger children over the past year, with 54% of women with children under 18 describing themselves as "very ambitious" compared to 44% of women with children over 18 and 49% of women with no children.
"There's never been a clear 'light at the end of the tunnel' with the pandemic, especially with sudden school closures and the emergence of new virus variants," Knapp adds. "But now that most kids are back in school full-time, working mothers especially are more eager than ever, and able, to return to work."
Knapp points out that the recent trend toward flexible workplaces could also be driving women's ambition. The pandemic has pushed more companies to implement flexible work policies, which can help women better balance the competing demands of their job and home life. Women spend a disproportionate amount of time handling housework and child-care responsibilities, and according to Pew Research Center, women are more likely than men to adjust their careers for family.
"A lot of the working mothers we work with are really excited about the possibility to be in a flex arrangement because their companies didn't even entertain that option pre-pandemic," Knapp explains. "So as long as companies continue to make their environments inclusive of all types of employees, I'm expecting ambition levels will continue to increase and maybe even surpass what we saw pre-pandemic."
Among the 1,068 working U.S. women CNBC asked in early 2020, 54% said they were "very ambitious" when it came to their career – this number dropped to 45% in 2021, but is back up to 49% this year.
The pandemic has also spurred a wake-up call among women: after juggling work and child-care responsibilities, and shouldering more underrecognized, underpaid work than their male colleagues for two years, some women are starting to turn their attention toward themselves and their passions.
"Women have largely been the default friend, daughter or parent leading caretaking responsibilities throughout the pandemic," Huang says. "Now, there's a collective realization of, 'It's me time' … when you shed some of those pressures on the personal front, it gives you more space to think about yourself, and what you want from a career."
Flexibility — when implemented thoughtfully – can be a game-changer in building more equitable, accessible work environments for women.
About 81% of business leaders believe hybrid work will be the norm by 2024, yet 72% lack a detailed plan for adopting a permanent hybrid working model, according to new research from AT&T and Dubber Corporation Limited of more than 300 U.S.-based managers.
Compared to men, however, CNBC and Momentive's survey found that women are more likely to be concerned that taking advantage of flexible work arrangements will prevent them from achieving career goals. This is especially true of younger women: 24% of women aged 18-34 said they are "very concerned" that being in the office less will harm their career growth compared to 17% of women aged 35-64 and 8% of women aged 65 and older.
As for mothers, 25% of women with children under 18 years old said that they are "very concerned" about how flexible work arrangements will affect their career trajectories versus 16% of women with children aged 18 or older.
In conversations with her younger employees, Huang hears this concern often. "They're worried that they're not getting the full mentorship, training or on-boarding experience in this flexible working world," she says. "It's this feeling of, 'Am I missing something? How is this going to impact my career progression, because I'm not in the room?'"
Women who are further along in their careers, however, might feel more comfortable taking advantage of flexible work arrangements because their confidence increases as their experience does. Research from the leadership development consultancy firm Zenger/Folkman found that a confidence gap plagues women earlier in their careers, with the largest gap most prominent in workers younger than 25.
"Some younger women might feel like they haven't earned a flexible work arrangement yet because they haven't had a chance to really prove themselves, because it can be harder to check in with your manager, communicate and show results in a mostly remote environment," Knapp says.
In flexible work, "flexible" shouldn't just cover where women work, but how they work, she adds. That includes setting hard boundaries for not sending emails before or after working hours and allowing parents to structure their schedules around their kids' pick-up and drop-off times or doctor's appointments so women don't feel guilted into leaving the workforce to take care of themselves and their families.
Huang predicts that there will be a permanent shift to flexible work arrangements as long as hiring remains competitive. "If the labor market turns, that's when the rubber hits the road and we'll see whether people are embracing flexibility for values-based reasons or just to attract talent," she says.
She continues: "But companies need to realize that flexible, remote work options keep women at work during a really difficult phrase of life – at the early or mid-career level – when there's a lot of pressure to leave … it can help prevent women's progress from stalling out."