Earlier this year, nearly two months to the day before the declaration of a national emergency due to COVID-19, women in the U.S. held more jobs than men for the first time since 2010. The milestone lead a Moody’s economist to declare in Forbes that “Women are now the majority of the workforce, and there’s no looking back.” Sadly, nine months and an unprecedented global pandemic later, not only has that momentum been lost, but unemployment rates for women have outpaced that of men throughout the crisis. Though the reasons for this disparity are varied, they are nevertheless unacceptable, both for the millions of women whose careers face an uncertain future, and for the global economy, which could lose $1 trillion in the next 10 years if this gender disparity is not addressed.
The reasons the pandemic has impacted female workers more than men is multi-faceted. In the early stages of the pandemic, women accounted for more than half of all job losses, largely because they disproportionately work in essential front-line sectors like hospitality, healthcare, education, childcare and retail, all of which were hit hard by lockdowns across the country.
Conversely, even women who have been fortunate enough to be able to continue working from home have faced their own career obstacles during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, working mothers make up 32 percent of all employed women, and roughly 23.5 million working women have children under the age of 18. Furthermore, the CDC reports that two out of every three caregivers are women who “provide daily or regular support to children, adults or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.” The fact that many working women have had to swap their office for the dining room table has made maintaining separation between the professional and personal difficult, if not impossible.
While our own customers have told us that their employees have been highly productive working from home, working mothers don’t seem to share that sentiment. A recent survey found that 3 in 5 working moms said they are less productive working from home during COVID-19, and 2 in 5 said they do more work and are working longer hours to make up for disruptions related to childcare.
While we’ve all had to adapt to this new normal, the massive impact on the work/life balance of working mothers has been particularly troubling. Given the uncertainty and hybrid models of schools reopening this fall, many women have had to leave the workforce altogether because of childcare, whether they work from home or not. Reports have already emerged detailing how women with careers in retail are having to choose between keeping their jobs and ensuring their children stay on track with remote learning. An additional study from the Census and Federal Reserve found that out of work women aged 25-44 are three-times as likely than men to not be working during the pandemic due to childcare demands. Perhaps most worrisome of all, a new report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether due to COVID-19.
Yet the fact that women leave the workforce to care for their families at much higher rates than men isn’t only due to women traditionally assuming the role of caregiver. The decision of who gives up their job to stay home with the kids for remote schooling is often a purely economic one, driven by the fact that working dads typically out-earn working moms. The gender pay-gap was a major issue for working women before the pandemic, with women earning 81 cents per for every dollar a man makes, and the same study found that women typically earn 7 percent less than men after a prolonged absence from the workforce because of missed opportunities for raises, promotions and bonuses while they are out of the workforce.
Some have suggested that in the COVID-19 economy, parents must choose between their children and their career. As a lifelong advocate for helping women advance in the workforce, I feel we must find a third path. Much of the burden will fall on employers, who must be convinced that a so-called “she-cession,” or mass exodus of women from their workforce, is detrimental to their business, their employer brand and the economy as a whole. The most important key is flexibility. Employers should look to offer flexible and alternative work arrangements for working mothers – and fathers – who may be struggling to juggle the demands of work and childcare. And as lockdown restrictions loosen here in the U.S., employers may even consider offering financial assistance to help working mothers supplement daycare and childcare expenses so they can remain in the workforce.
Make no mistake, navigating this tightrope will not be easy. Some companies that have attempted to help parents and working mothers navigate these difficult times have faced backlash from employees who don’t have children, arguing that parents are receiving special benefits and perks not afforded to all employees. Ultimately, organizations must strike a balance that allows working mothers to continue to not just participate, but thrive, in the workplace. The economic recovery from COVID-19 will be a critical journey for businesses, and it is imperative that women not be left behind.