There’s no disputing that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s employment. The statistics have been glaring and alarming: before COVID-19 women made up almost half of the nation’s workforce. Since the pandemic hit, they’ve also made up more than half of the overall job losses in the U.S.
In January alone, 80% of all workers over the age of 20 who left the workforce were women. Women are four times more likely to leave their jobs than men.
Lockdowns and restrictions forced unexpected pressures including homeschooling, caregiving, and heightened anxiety over safety and health, forcing millions of women to spend almost eight hours a week more than men on the unpaid “second shift” with the additional emotional, physical and mental burdens.
The damage the pandemic has had on women in the workforce has been called a “shecession.”
“I’m not talking about the wage gap or fewer women at the top. It’s about the enduring work versus family plight—not new, but now greatly intensified,” says Kathryn Sollmann, a Connecticut-based career coach and author of Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman and What to Do Instead.
“Women have always shouldered four jobs (a paid one, plus caring for children, aging parents, and households), and the only one they can logically give up is their career. Even before the pandemic about 35% of women chose to leave the workforce each year because their jobs didn’t fit their lives,” says Sollmann.
This reporter can attest that among toilet paper and Lysol shortages, the constant fear about unknowns regarding the coronavirus were compounded by a fierce commitment to keep my family safe and supported, above all else.
The Give and Take of Remote Work
The ability to work remotely made some of that juggling possible but not without consequences. Instant messaging apps such as Slack and virtual collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom were already in use in most global corporations, to bridge the times when in-person conversations were not available.
This “always on” availability also meant that as women balanced homeschooling, childcare, household needs and other caregiving, they could “easily” make up lost work time since they no longer needed to commute into an office to get their job done. We could simply flip open our laptops.
Some low-income workers didn’t have the choice. Having jobs in essential workplaces such as grocery stores, without childcare or assistance in their homes, many were forced to reduce their hours or leave their jobs. In many of these cases, women of color were more negatively impacted than white women.
From Shecession to SHEcovery
As the availability of vaccines become more available, the nation (the world) starts to reopen, the “SHEcovery” is now on the way. Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) came up with the term in outlining four components to support women currently in and re-entering the workforce:
- Employers need to build and provide better infrastructure such as flexible schedules, benefits, and leave policies,
- Partners of parents need to share responsibilities more equitably,
- Legislation need to mandate living wages, national childcare and sick leave,
- And professional development resources need to be more accessible to anyone and everyone.
The pandemic has already proven to many companies that through flexible schedules, employees can manage home and work responsibilities. Tech tools and virtual meetings keep collaboration and productivity on track.
Virtual recruiting and video interviews to attract, retain, and onboard talent are opening up new opportunities to employers and employees, removing physical location limitations. With mobile networks and broadband access, work can be done from almost anywhere.
As schools and daycares reopen, as caregiving burdens subside, and women can return to work, Sollmann has advice.
“Whether women have left the workforce by choice or not, their economic recovery depends on how well they look beyond the traditional, all-encompassing, permanent full-time job,” she says. “Especially when women have chosen to leave the workforce before and during the pandemic, it has largely been fueled by an outdated view of the workplace.”
Sollmann advises women to think more expansively: to make a professional pitch for flexibility in your current full-time job or find increasing opportunities elsewhere—not only for flexible full-time work, but also freelance, consulting, part-time or job share opportunities that have become increasingly lucrative.
It also may be the opportunity to pivot and explore a new direction. Free or affordable professional certification programs online, through community colleges and nonprofits can facilitate upskilling and new-skilling. Some programs even provide support for childcare and transportation and internships that lead to paid employment.
As Julia Pollak of ZipRecruiter has previously shared with WorkingNation, “A pandemic that severely disrupted women’s careers also paradoxically brought about changes in workplace norms that could make us the big winners in the end.”