Frontline women workers are the backbone of the retail and hospitality sectors. From long hours on the shop floor to managing busy restaurants, cafes and hotels, these women are the driving force of our consumer economy. However, while they were designated “essential workers” during the pandemic, many may now feel that their efforts have been largely forgotten. Do organisations or indeed busy shoppers and café diners see past the food server, sales assistant or check-out person to acknowledge the individual?

Despite strides made in gender equity within office settings, the needs of frontline women are often unmet, leaving them feeling unappreciated, invisible and often exposed to aggression. These workers often struggle to take proper breaks, have limited access to toilet facilities and are frequently required to wear impractical and ill-fitting uniforms.

Frontline workers are generally required to work in-person at a designated place, such as a factory, hotel, restaurant or store, and follow a shift pattern, which may be set or variable. Their hours can often be unsociable and outside of the 9-to-5 office day. Most jobs are also physical and often require women to be standing for most of a shift as well as dealing with equipment or machinery. This is hard and can take its toll on a worker’s health, particularly if no account is made for gender differences.

Women in frontline roles want to contribute and perform at the highest level, but they are frustrated by the system. They feel that their physical needs, safety and overall well-being are frequently either unrecognised or disregarded and that there’s no investment in their growth.

A disconnect between women’s needs and workplace policies

Catalyst spent two years speaking to women in frontline roles and their managers, and also examining the women’s diary entries. We found a profound disconnect between women’s needs and workplace policies. In our study, we found that these issues may not always be evident to leaders or even accounted for in traditional workplaces, particularly those not designed with women in mind. Yet, women workers who feel a lack of safety or physical discomfort in their workplace struggle to focus and are more inclined to leave.

When it comes to workplace safety, gender should be a pivotal concern especially when 58 per cent of retail workers in the UK are women. Physical threats pose a very real danger to workers, with many enduring daily abuse and grappling with genuine fears for their safety. It is crucial that organisations address these concerns and provide comprehensive support for women working on the frontline. One woman said: “A person may not have a car…and may not be comfortable getting the city transportation at night. So, I think it should be accommodated where a person doesn’t have to work so late so they can get home safely.”

In addition, the study highlights another concern: lack of consideration for women’s physical needs. Many women endure workplaces where breaks are restricted, uncomfortable uniforms are mandatory, and managers lack understanding of menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum experiences and the menopause. For instance, one participant shared: “A challenge is the uniform — we wear a tuxedo type shirt, not made for women, (which is) also very hot and uncomfortable.” A separate study also found that only 14 per cent of women had occasional access to workplace toilets. These challenges lead to decreased focus, increased turnover and a workforce disengaged due to discomfort and safety concerns.

Scheduling demands further exacerbate the situation with organisations seemingly indifferent to women’s lives and needs outside work. Frequent changes in rosters and shifts, including a requirement to be “on-call” for a shift, which may or may not materialise, create additional stress. One woman said: “When we had down weeks and got forced either to be off work or to be on a new shift, that could happen as late as Friday and it would start and be effective on Monday.”

Not knowing when they will be needed for work from week to week also makes it hard for women to make personal appointments essential for their health and well-being, while the lack of flexibility also makes it difficult to deal with urgent situations as they arise, be they medical needs or childcare emergencies. When they do take time off for medical and personal appointments, they can often face pay loss and penalties.

Changing weekly schedules also contribute to financial instability and stress for hourly workers, as they lack a guaranteed monthly income.

Creating positive workplaces

Leaders must recognise that prioritising financial considerations in shift patterns over individuals’ needs will negatively impact staff morale, cause employee disengagement and result in a higher turnover rate. Flexibility is the number one driver for people considering leaving their jobs in retail, for instance.

Women are hindered by rigid work environments with few pathways to progression. Yet despite these challenges, frontline women workers express a desire to excel in their roles. One woman working in food service said: “I’ve been a server for many years, and I don’t think I’ve been asked once what could be improved for me as a worker.”

Creating positive workplaces for frontline women workers is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity. However, the study reveals a disconnect between women’s needs and the policies and practices put in place by employers. Bridging this gap and addressing women’s needs leads to increased retention, productivity and engagement.

The report highlights four actions that companies must take to end this disconnect and create rewarding workplaces that engage and support women in frontline roles: through creating workplace environments that prioritise the physical well-being of women; adopting employee-centric scheduling to remove instability and unpredictability; fostering empathic leadership by training managers to actively understand and support women’s lives outside work; and establishing growth and advancement opportunities for frontline women to develop their career.

In addition to employers, all of us have a responsibility to consider the human element in our daily interactions. Whether someone has handed you a drink, served you a sandwich or processed your grocery shopping payment, take a moment to acknowledge and express gratitude to the person behind the service. These individuals may be frontline workers by choice or necessity, navigating the tricky balance of personal responsibilities while ensuring countless moving pieces fall into place for their work shifts.

It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the luxury of choosing their workplace or working hours. Your simple acknowledgment can make a significant difference, when you appreciate the efforts and challenges faced by those who strive to provide excellent service amidst their own complex circumstances. Let’s ensure women in frontline roles are seen, heard, and valued in the businesses they drive – and that they personally and  professionally can thrive.

*Lucy Kallin is the Executive Director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Catalyst, Inc. This blog post is based on Women on the Front Line: Enabling Them to Thrive, Stay, and Perform, a report produced by Catalyst in partnership with Accenture. The post was first published on LSE Blog here and represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics and Political Science.