Future of Work with Catalyst

Frontline Women Are Being Left Behind

Negin Sattari

A gap exists between what women in frontline roles say they need and what employers provide.

The world learned many important lessons during the pandemic, particularly that frontline workers are essential to a functioning society. As white-collar workers stayed home, frontline employees had the weight of the world on their shoulders. Without these workers in production, processing, and service delivery, we wouldn’t have had access to the food and everyday products we depend on.

Workers in these fields are disproportionately women and people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups. While we applauded from our balconies early in the pandemic, many frontline employees kept working under poor conditions. Despite some improvements, a gap exists between what women in frontline roles say they need and what employers provide.

Catalyst gained insight into the unique perspectives of these workers in the first report in our Frontline Employees Initiative, Women on the Front Line: Enabling Them to Thrive, Stay, and Perform. Interviews revealed critical challenges faced by women in frontline roles in retail, manufacturing, and hospitality. We identified four key steps companies must take to create respectful, rewarding work environments:

  • Prioritize physical well-being.
  • Adopt employee-centered scheduling practices.
  • Create advancement opportunities with clarity around growth pathways.
  • Allow direct managers to build positive environments, making decisions guided by empathy.

Addressing these needs can help companies increase retention, productivity, and engagement of women in frontline roles.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the report is that women employees’ basic physical needs are ignored, from those related to work environments, to machines and tools, and even required uniforms. The report also found long, volatile, and unpredictable shifts are normal in frontline work. Though companies require considerable flexibility from employees, little to no flexibility is given in return. Scheduling issues, along with rigid policies and practices, often lead to lower productivity and higher turnover as women juggle childcare, eldercare, and job duties. Managers don’t always have the resources or authority to make team-level decisions that address frontline women’s needs.

Some frontline women want to advance but aren’t offered clear paths to growth opportunities. Plus, promotions may require excessive hours, accompanied by higher stress relative to a limited increase in income.

To amplify frontline women’s needs, companies must include them in the decision-making process, centering their voices. Industries struggling with labor shortages, attrition rates, and high levels of burnout among frontline employees must prioritize physical and emotional needs, adopt employee-centered scheduling policies, and offer clear advancement opportunities. Company leaders need to ensure that frontline managers are able to make team-level decisions guided by empathy.

As one woman who participated in our interviews said, “I need to know that you care about me and my family. And I need to know that I’m something in your company.”

Factoring in the well-being of women in frontline roles is not a bonus. It’s the minimum standard for taking care of the workforce that keeps our society functioning. DW

Negin Sattari, PhD, is a sociologist and director of research at Catalyst. Her current work focuses on improving work conditions for women in frontline jobs.


Diversity Woman is pleased to present a new ongoing column partnership with Catalyst, a global nonprofit promoting gender equity and workplace inclusion supported by many of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with preeminent thought leadership, actionable solutions, and a galvanized community of multinational corporations to accelerate workplace equity—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

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