What do women want at work? It’s not just better pay, study finds

While some teachers may count the days to summer break, Allison Gruber said she “despised” it. She couldn’t bear being away from her students that long. That’s how much being an educator lit her up, she said.

The fulfillment that Gruber, 45, got from teaching in college and high school classrooms was so total, she said, she could live with the fact that her pay was lacking.

Shifting to remote learning during the pandemic’s first year wasn’t the breaking point for Gruber, who lived in Arizona at the time and was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before in-person learning halted. The breaking point came when U.S. classrooms became the front line for social and political battles, said Gruber.

Would her maskless high school students get sick with the coronavirus—and possibly expose her? Would a parent get mad at her because she talked about race during class?

“I realized what a lot of women realized in the pandemic: We are not paid enough. We are regularly exploited in the workplace and expected outside of [it] to do all this emotional labor,” she said.

So, without another job lined up, she quit.

Now living at home with her parents in Chicago, Gruber said she has clear priorities for what her next job should look like: Enough compensation so she can pay medical and divorce bills. Control over her own schedule and hours. A job that makes the most of her skill set.

“I want my life to be peaceful and free,” she said. “And so any job that would support me in that end, I’d be happy to give to.”

Gruber has plenty of company, according to a new analysis from Gallup released Wednesday. The study delves into what U.S. women and men want from their next jobs, finding notable differences that could carry implications for how companies recruit and retain workers in the most unusual U.S. job market in modern history.

The report pulls from a survey of 13,000 U.S. employees taken in fall 2021, who were asked what they value in a job. In the process of looking at those results, Kristin Barry, director of hiring analytics at Gallup, began investigating if there were any substantial differences along gender lines.

“Once we cut the data in that way, there were some meaningful differences that we felt needed to be reported separately so they could be highlighted and unpacked a little further,” Barry said.

Better pay and benefits—as well as greater work-life balance and well-being—were top priorities for both men and women. But while women and men said better income and benefits were “very important” to them at similar rates—65% and 63%, respectively—women said other factors were just as important to them in a way men did not.

Topping the list for what women considered most important in looking for a new job was greater work-life balance, at 66%, followed by compensation and benefits. Women also wanted to find a job that “allows me to do what I do best,” with 62% agreeing this was very important to them.

A majority of men agreed with them, but by smaller margins: 56% said it was very important to find a job that helped them achieve greater well-being, while 53% said a job that allows them to do what they do best was very important.

But the most significant difference was in how men and women value diverse and inclusive organizations. This was the fifth most important factor to women, behind greater stability and job security: Just over half of women said this was very important to them in considering a new job.

Meanwhile, one in three men said this was very important in weighing their decision to take a job, according to Gallup.

The data shows that women are evaluating their prospects in a multifaceted way, Barry said—placing high significance on a number of factors.

“The factors that women are considering when deciding whether or not to take a job, they’re considering with more intensity,” Barry said. “It really is a ‘both, and.’ Pay that doesn’t also offer work-life balance and benefits of well-being—it isn’t going to cut it for women.”

Early on in 2022, labor data showed that women have continued to feel the sting of the pandemic on their job prospects, returning to work at lower rates than men. Experts say this is probably due to a lack of flexible work and increased caregiving responsibilities, particularly as the omicron variant surged across the country at the beginning of the year.

To appeal to female workers, companies need to be intentional in how they restructure how they work, Barry said. It isn’t enough to offer a few more remote positions or allow some teams to have greater flexibility, she said: Jobs across the organization need to be restructured, so flexibility and work-life integration become ingrained in the company culture.

Phoebe Gavin, a career and leadership coach and executive director of talent and development at Vox Media, said the pandemic has laid bare the need to for companies to modernize their approach to work.

More and more workers are seeking “human-centered” workplaces, Gavin said, not companies singularly focused on maximizing shareholder value.

Some organizations are changing how they recruit and operate to reflect this, Gavin added. Many “human-centric” companies make it a point to talk about their workplace culture in job descriptions and marketing materials, she said. They are also focused on expanding benefits and appealing to applicants through these offerings—such as permanently remote or hybrid work, shortened workweeks or generous paid time off packages.

These companies also tend to have women and people from marginalized backgrounds in their leadership, she noted.

Gavin says workplaces who take this people-centered approach stand to gain more top talent in the long run than other organizations, particularly if they are not a big legacy company with a lot of brand recognition.

It may sound cliche, said Samantha Ritter, who recently left her not-for-profit job for a government one, but the combination of parenthood and the pandemic changed what she found most valuable in a job.

Ritter, 33, lives in Baltimore with her husband, 18-month-old baby and a “very needy rescue dog.” When it came to her career, Ritter viewed herself as a “high performer,” someone who thrived on being productive. But after giving birth, Ritter returned to work sooner than expected—and found herself hitting a wall.

“Nothing that I was doing felt good enough,” she said. “I wasn’t working well. I wasn’t parenting well. I wasn’t partnering well.”

After quitting the nonprofit in November, Ritter started her current job in December. When the omicron variant hit, she remembered being on a video conference call where five or six of the participants had their children in the background.

“They were very clear that the expectation was, ‘You are not going to be able to do 100% of your job right now. Please don’t cry,’ ” Ritter said. It was such a basic instruction—but it was also the first time she had ever heard it. She felt her body loosen up and relax instantly, Ritter said.

There are trade-offs, Ritter added. It’s more of a “clock-in, clock-out culture” than her old job, but there are also “much clearer expectations” around her work hours and comp time, she said: “What I appreciate most is the overarching sentiment that this is a job and I am done at 4:30, rather than being told that I don’t work a 9 to 5 and I need to work until the work gets done.”

According to Ritter, she’s now able to take half-days if she needs and self-care no longer feels like a task. She said she’s better able to be present for her family —and for herself.

“It’s just the acknowledgment that I can come first and my job doesn’t,” Ritter said. “I didn’t know how much I needed that.”

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