A look at Women in (and out of) the Workplace
While we are celebrating Women’s History Month, it’s important to recognize that history is being made regarding women for reasons that are less than encouraging. In January, a jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that 275,000 women left the workforce, compared to 71,000 men in January 2021 alone. Overall, an estimated 2.4 million women have exited the workforce since February 2020.
While we all witnessed a significant step through the glass ceiling with the swearing in of the first woman of color and first woman as the vice president of the United States, millions of women around the globe were sinking back into unpaid roles and watching their independence and careers fade.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented the perfect storm in 2020 for women in the workforce. At face value, it can be assumed that the pandemic created an environment where women were forced back into traditional roles. However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women is more complex and damaging.
Doesn‘t it seem a bit ironic that the same year that celebrated the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment was also the year when the percentage of women in the labor force hit a decade low? During 2020 and into 2021, women left the workforce at a more rapid rate than men. Understanding the underlying cause that contributed to this perfect storm allows us to create solutions and support systems to rebuild after the storm.
Pink Collared Jobs
Pink collar jobs are jobs that females predominantly hold. The term originated in the 1940s when women entered the workforce during World War II. Originally, pink collar jobs referred to positions in nursing, housekeeping, secretarial, and education. Over time they have evolved into areas of hospitality, travel, education, retail, healthcare, and child care.
These positions are typically lower in pay and lack opportunities for advancement. They were also some of the very jobs that were first furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic or reduced to part-time status. Interestingly enough, in recent years, pink collar jobs have witnessed a shift of men entering these typically female–dominated professions. While in non-COVID times, this is seen as a boon to the fight against gender stereotypes, it may have backfired in 2020. For example, in retail, women make up 48% of the workforce yet accounted for 61% of those furloughed or laid off. For whatever reason, females in these roles were disproportionately let go.
A Forbes article written in 2017 had already pointed out the bluing up of the pink collar job market as millennial men joined the workforce and reshaped what it traditionally looked like. Add a pandemic to the mix, and we may be witnessing men retaining key positions that women traditionally held.
For the Children
When the pandemic hit, it dealt a striking blow to the child care sector, which was already failing to support all the families who needed it, and with COVID-19, 4.5 million child care slots vanished, according to a report issued by the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. This equaled a one-two punch to the female workforce. As child care jobs disappeared, so did opportunities for families who relied on the service they provided.
Pre-COVID-19, there were nearly 10 million mothers of young children in the labor force. Research conducted by Gemma Zamarro, found 44% of women reported being the only one in the household providing child care, compared to 14% of men. In September 2020, over 800,000 women left the labor force, which was four times the number of men. While women stepped up and took on the bulk of caring for the children, their decision to do so may have a lasting negative impact.
One experiment found that job applicants with relevant experience who were out of work for more than six months were less likely to be called back than those with no relevant work experience who had been unemployed for less time. In some fields, taking a year off to do e-learning with your child is career suicide. Dr. Kate Deisseroth told WSJ, “As a surgeon, you can‘t take a year or two off and go back in, so it would kind of be the end of that career.“
Working mothers were surveyed in the annual Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, which found one in five are considering dropping out of the workforce with an additional 15% reporting they may dial back their careers, either by cutting their hours or switching to a less-demanding role. For women with young children, nearly 25% say they may take a leave of absence or quit altogether.
Women of Color
While women in general saw increased challenges during the pandemic, the Women in the Workplace Study found the burden on women of color to be even more significant. Latina women were more likely to worry about layoffs and furloughs, LGBTQ was twice as likely to cite mental health as their biggest challenge, and Latina and Black mothers were found to shoulder heavier burdens than their white counterparts, and to be more likely to be the sole breadwinner.
The impact of racial tension during 2020 also took an enormous toll on Black women workers who reported little support from managers at work. It appears that managers and colleagues may have shied away from even checking in on their Black employees. The study also found Black women were twice as likely to say the death of a loved one had been one of their biggest challenges during the pandemic.
As with many issues that challenge women, women from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities, have had a more challenging road to travel.
Crisis in the making
According to a study by McKinsey, women‘s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men‘s jobs. Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses.
According to the World Values Survey, there is a belief that men have more right to a job than women when jobs are scarce. To combat these beliefs, the United Nations has set gender equality as one of their 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere as a part of their 2030 plan. While they have made strides, including more girls going to school, fewer girls forced into early marriage, and more women serving in parliament and leadership positions, many challenges remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere.
Experts are pleading to close the gender gap. The world Economic Forum‘s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 explains gender parity has a fundamental bearing on whether economies and society thrive. Developing and deploying one-half of the world‘s available talent has a huge bearing on the growth, competitiveness, and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide. If something isn‘t done, women will experience a disproportionate share of job loss from the pandemic, slightly reducing the female-to-male labor force participation rate. Without action to increase gender parity, reduced participation would persist post-pandemic, leaving global GDP $1 trillion below where it would be if COVID-19 had affected both sexes equally in the next 9 years.
In a United Nations policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women, they urge leaders to build more equal, inclusive, and sustainable economies both during the pandemic and after. This includes gender-responsive economic and social policies and placing women‘s economic lives at the heart of the pandemic response and recovery plans.
Many have suggested that 2020‘s COVID-19 pandemic could set back the women‘s movement for decades. An article in the Guardian explains that for hundreds of thousands of women, the crisis has decimated their work opportunities and substantially increased the unpaid care work for millions more.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women is a global challenge, a shared challenge, and not just a women’s liberation challenge. Companies, governments, and leaders everywhere must engage now to curb the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and focus on gender equality to create a more sustainable planet. Instead of a tragedy, we are presented with an opportunity; the COVID-19 pandemic may be the catalyst for change that has been needed.
While many argue policy changes are in order, the government is not the only place to seek solutions. Corporations can engage and make changes that will not only positively impact their long-term bottom-line but will have a marked impact on how quickly we recover from this pandemic. In the Women in the Workplace study, they suggest there are two paths ahead for companies. If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent how they work, so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone.
Corporate engagement strategies will be varied but the key is to not to be paralyzed by the breadth of the problem but to focus on the “next right thing.“ Here are some actions that companies can engage in to help shore up the pandemic damage to women in their workforce.
- Equal Opportunity Flexibility. Gender–neutral flexibility is the name of the game. Did you know that men who can work from home do about 50% more child care than men who can‘t? By embracing remote work for men, you‘ll directly or indirectly help address the child care gaps that keep working moms frazzled.
Companies also need to start helping their women employees re-establish work-life boundaries. In the virtual space we are now working, the culture has shifted to “always on.“ Emails are answered and sent at all times of the day and night, projects are worked on during naps and after the children go to bed. By establishing set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for responding to emails outside of normal work hours, and improving communication about work hours you‘ll be able to set new work norms which everyone can use.
- Bring in Mary Poppins. Sure not everyone can get a smartly-dressed English nanny, but one of the primary stressors for working mothers centers around child care and distance learning. Offering a part-time nanny or tutor can reduce the stress on female employees who have found themselves responsible for tending the children. Bringing in a professional can free women to handle other household responsibilities and focus as they work from home or engage in training and business development
- Adjust your attitude. This pandemic may be amplifying biases women have faced for years, including higher performance standards, harsher judgment for mistakes, and penalties for being mothers and for taking advantage of flexible work options. The best way to combat the impact of implicit biases is to hit it head–on. Formal unconscious biases training is beneficial even as a refresher course.
Ideas about productivity and performance pre-COVID may need to be revisited post-pandemic. Goals may need to be reset, project scopes narrowed, and deadlines extended. How we‘ve measured performance before COVID may no longer be appropriate. Bringing criteria into line with what employees can reasonably achieve will help prevent burn–out and anxiety and ultimately lead to better performance and higher productivity.
- Put a wet blanket on burn–out. Some of the underlying causes of burn-out include longstanding structures that need to be revisited. Company norms that communicate expectations contribute to a high percentage of burn–out among their workers. Workers face choices between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace. Updating your employee performance review process and employee performance measures is not something that can be delayed. Helping your employees understand the new measurements and expectations will do a lot to reduce the toll of burn–out.
More and more companies are paying attention to the mental health of their workers. By providing mental health counseling, health checks and healthcare services, personal well-being and enrichment programs, and bereavement counseling, you provide the support to help address areas of stress and burn-out before they become a critical issue.
- Seats at the table. In a COVID-19 era, companies should ensure women are represented and included in all planning and decision-making. This includes providing guidance to crisis task forces and responsive teams and ensuring that both men and women are represented in COVID-related processes.
In March, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. This year, we have a lot to celebrate as women’s parliamentary presence has more than doubled since 1995. The 192 nations with females at the helm have been found to have fared “systematically and significantly better” than their patriarchal counterparts during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the increase of diverse female representation at leadership levels is a movement in the right direction, we cannot avoid or discount the concern around gender parity which the pandemic both reinforced and emphasized. This is not a female problem, this is not a U.S. problem, this is a global concern that each of us can help change.