There’s a new crop of health, wellness and work/life balance benefits (unrelated to childbearing) employers can take advantage of to be more appealing to women. (Photo: Shutterstock) 

There is a battle raging in the employment market. It’s the fight to recruit and retain the best, most productive employees in what is rapidly becoming an overheated market.

Consider this: the overall unemployment in the U.S. briefly dropped below 4 percent earlier this year – the level which economists consider “full employment” because there is always turnover among employees. In particular sectors, the competition for talent is especially fierce.

“This is far and away the most competitive the market has been in six years,” said Todd Jamison, head of the permanent placement division at Stratacuity, a search firm that focuses on biotechnology. “We’ve had many instances with candidates with two, three, four offers on the table. It’s really a perfect storm.”

For companies looking to attract and retain top women employees in particular, the situation is complicated by an additional factor: for most of the 20th century, the unemployment rate was higher for women than men. But starting in the 1980s, that has flipped, and women typically have a lower unemployment rate than men.

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This situation is exacerbated in recessions, when jobs dominated by men – such as construction – experience bigger losses than the jobs dominated by women, such as food service. For the first half of the year, the unemployment rate for women in the U.S. was several tenths of a percentage point lower than the corresponding rate for men.

HR experts say that money alone won’t drive prospective employees’ decisions. Benefits, company culture and a sense of corporate mission are just as important to many applicants, they say.

The result can only be called a benefits arms race. What are the latest lures deployed to attract employees in hot markets?

Truly flexible work hours: employees set their own hours to preserve work/life balance.

Unlimited vacation: employees can take as much vacation as they like, provided they stay up-to-speed on their tasks. (This has the added benefit to employers of eliminating unused vacation time, which often accrues and becomes a major liability payable when an employee leaves.)

Work-from-home options: Forget Marissa Mayer’s gambit at Yahoo a few years ago, when she eliminated telecommuting, which she claimed was hurting productivity. This work/life balance benefit is more popular than ever.

And there are more benefits intended to appeal specifically to women. Apple and Facebook made a splash four years ago when it offered to pay for women to freeze their eggs, enabling them to put off raising a family while they advanced their careers. Now, at many tech companies, this is old hat. Other benefits that appeal to women include paid maternity leave, lactation rooms for nursing mothers, onsite daycare and childcare allowances.

The latest trend to attract and retain women is the provide more benefits that aren’t tied directly to childbearing and raising. What do these look like?

Many are not traditional benefits, but are instead part of company culture. It is well known that women across the U.S. on average still earn less than men in comparable jobs. A proactive equal pay policy is very important to prospective woman employees. The same goes for opportunities for advancement: women are underrepresented in management and board roles. Eliminating that disparity makes a big difference to job applicants.

A final piece of the company culture: formalizing mentorship opportunities for women, so they have greater chances to advance within the organization.

There are also a new crop of health, wellness and work/life balance benefits that appeal to women. Benefits that boost health, productivity and satisfaction are the most popular among women, according to a study recently published by Harvard Business Review. More than 60 percent of women say better health, dental and vision benefits “would be taken into heavy consideration,” compared to only 47 percent of men. The study also found that 80 percent of employees would choose additional benefits over a pay raise.

There are several new services and technologies employers can offer to enhance their health care offerings, particularly for women. Every woman in the U.S. starting at age 40 will undergo mammography screening for breast cancer detection. A service like Mammosphere can make breast cancer screening more efficient, effective, and reduces the anxiety, time away from work, and costs associated with callbacks or false positives.

Other innovations that appeal to women:

  • Twitter, a leader in novel benefits, has introduced on-site acupuncture.
  • Airbnb offers employees a $2,000 annual travel stipend (provided they stay at a venue listed on the Airbnb service).
  • Tufts Health Plan, a leading payer in Massachusetts, is offering once-a-month manicures.

Women value fitness-oriented benefits more than men: yoga, Barre and spin classes are all gaining in popularity. These fitness benefits typically pay dividends to the companies that sponsor them in the form of healthier employees that lead to lower medical spend for self-insured employers and potentially lower insurance rates for those with third party payers.

The path to attracting and retaining top women employees in a hot job market is clear: create a winning company culture that values, compensates and promotes men and women equally. Focus on the benefits that promote work/life balance. And sweeten the pot with innovative, health-oriented benefits that appeal to women and have a disproportionate impact on job satisfaction.

Matthew A. Michela is CEO of lifeIMAGE, a Newton, Massachusetts, company providing market leading solutions for medical image exchange.