Job satisfaction in the US is at a high—but less so for women than men

We’re living in an age of Greats and Quiets. There are Resignations and Reshufflings, Quittings and Firings, Loud Leaves, and Bare Minimum Mondays, plus more labor market lingo aimed at capturing a particular zeitgeist of professional malaise. So this news may surprise you: Most people are actually pretty happy at work.

New data from the Conference Board, a business research organization, shows that job satisfaction among US workers is at a three-decade high. The business research organization has been surveying American employees on their careers since 1987. This year the survey of 1,680 respondents found that 62.3% of US are satisfied with their jobs, up from 60.2% last year and 56.8% in 2020—and a 36-year high.

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Some of that satisfaction has to do with the positive impact of the pandemic on the job market, like an increase in work flexibility and an overall uptick in pay. But the data is divided, too. While the overall findings suggest that workers are feeling more positive about their jobs, a closer look also surfaces a startling satisfaction gap: Women are significantly less content at work than men.

Overall, women were nearly four points behind men in job satisfaction (with 60.1% of women satisfied with their jobs, in contrast to 64% of men). In fact, for women, every component of job satisfaction was lower than it was for men. Even happiness on the job, apparently, has a gender problem.

One reason for the gender gap in job satisfaction: flexibility

There’s at least one looming reason behind the gendered gaps in job satisfaction. And while the Conference Board data hints at it, a new report from Deloitte spells it out clearly: flexibility. And while access to flexibility is a consistent top priority for women at work, they’re not getting enough of it.

Women in particular benefit from flexible policies on the job, whether that be the hours they work or where they work from, because responsibilities at home—like handing chores, caring for children, and other domestic work—still fall disproportionately on them, even when working full-time.

This is the third year the consulting group has surveyed working women around the world about their experiences in the workplace. And the 2023 findings indicate that they have even less flexibility than in prior years, says Emma Codd, global inclusion leader at Deloitte.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” Codd says. “We’ve been talking about [flexible work] for three years.” In 2023, less than a quarter of women report that they have a high degree of flexibility over both where and when they work.

But that component is key to keeping women in their jobs: More of the women surveyed left their jobs in the last year than in 2021 and 2020 combined, citing a lack of flexible working hours as a top reason they walked away. In contrast, women who have flexible hours are three times as likely to stay at their workplace for the next five years.

The Conference Board study, meanwhile, indicates just how persistent the gender gap is when it comes to policies around job flexibility and time off. For example, the study found a 9.4-point gap between men and women’s satisfaction with sick day policies, with 60.4% of men reporting they were satisfied and just 51% of women reporting the same. Women also reported being less satisfied with vacation allowances (7.2 points behind men), family leave policies (6.2 points behind men), and flex-time plans (5.9 points behind men).

Happiness highs may not last, either

Gender aside, the satisfaction may fade fast. Notably, the Conference Board report surveyed its respondents in November, before a rising tide of layoffs and job cuts at major companies swept across industries and diminished worker confidence. The potential of further job losses will shift satisfaction, too. The organization predicts the US will experience a short recession later in 2023, bumping unemployment up from 3.4% to 4.4% by the first quarter of 2024.

“Once unemployment goes up [or] we hit a recession, there will be fewer people changing jobs they were unhappy with,” Selcuk Eren, a senior economist at the Conference Board, told the Wall Street Journal. Reports of satisfaction dropped after the recession of 2007-09, hitting an all-time low of 42.6% in 2010.

But if companies want to keep women in the workplace—and keep them satisfied—they should be paying attention to the gaps in what women need from their employers. We can “put a number” to the differences for women, along with what we lose without flexible work policies, Codd says.

Without flexible options, she adds, “this is what walks out the door.”

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