Supporting the Women Hit Hardest by the Pandemic
Only 57% of women in the U.S. are working or looking for work right now—the lowest rate since 1988.
That telling data point is just one of several that illustrate a stark contrast in these stark times: of the millions who’ve seen their employment affected by the pandemic, women have been hardest hit.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some 2.3 million women left the workforce between the start of the pandemic and January 2021. Meanwhile, the BLS statistic for the number of men who left the U.S. workforce in that same period was 1.8 million. With International Women’s Day here, it’s time we ask ourselves how we can stem this inordinately sized tide of hard-working and talented women from leaving the workforce.
Job losses during the pandemic impact women disproportionately greater than men
A broader BLS statistic provides a further perspective: a total of 4,637,000 payroll jobs for women have been lost in total since the pandemic began in the U.S. alone. That ranges from executive roles, jobs in retail, and educators, to work in public service and more. Of those jobs lost, about one third of women aged 25-44 cited that childcare was the reason for that unemployment.
Combine that with the fact that globally women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men, and a global gender pay gap of 23%, it’s easy to see why millions of women have simply dropped out of the workforce to manage children and home schooling—even in the instances where employment is available.
Not that this should surprise us. For example, just a few years before the pandemic, research showed that few Americans wanted to revert to the traditional roles of women at home and men in the workplace. However, when push came to shove, the Pew Research showed that women most often made compromises when needs at home conflicted with work. And now we’ve seen that sentiment come home to roost. On a massive scale.
Put plainly, when the pandemic pushed, women’s working lives predominantly went over the edge.
Supporting women working remotely during the pandemic
Within these facts and figures, I’d like to focus on the women who are working remotely while caring for their families, whether that’s their children, elders in their lives, or even a mix of both. What can we do, as employers, leaders, and co-workers in our businesses to better support them?
As early as June, Forbes reported that women were reducing their working hours at a rate four to five times greater than men, ostensibly to manage a household where everything from daycare, school, elder care, and work all take place under the same roof. The article went on to cite ripple-effect concerns in the wake of such reductions like the tendency to pursue less-demanding work, greater vulnerability to layoffs, and reduced likelihood for promotion. In fact, one study conducted in the U.S. last summer found that 34% of men with children at home say they’ve received a promotion while working remotely, while only 9% of women with children at home say the same.
In an interview with the BBC, Melinda Gates, the Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stated her views on the situation succinctly: “I hope Covid-19 forces us to confront how unsustainable the current arrangement is—and how much we all miss out on when women’s responsibilities at home limit their ability to contribute beyond it. The solutions lie with governments, employers, and families committed to doing things more equitably.” I agree. This is a problem for us to solve together.
How employers and leaders can help
As for the role of employers and leaders in the solution, some thinking presented in The Harvard Business Review caught my eye. The article, “3 Ways Companies Can Retain Working Moms Right Now” focuses on what employers can do to better support the women in their workforce. The three ingredients the authors propose are:
- Provide certainty and clarity, wherever possible.
- Right size job expectations.
- And continue the empathy.
If we think about the stressors we all face, this simple recipe actually reveals some depth. It takes knowing, and engaging with, employees perhaps more greatly than before. One sentence in the conclusion struck me in particular:
“It is no longer an option for managers to pretend that their employees do not have lives outside of their jobs, as these evaporated boundaries between home and work are not going away anytime soon.”
I see this every practically every day when I meet with my team. I’m sure you’ve seen it as well. With our laptop cameras on for sometimes hours a day, we’ve all caught glimpses into our coworker’s lives outside the office, seen that 7am meeting rescheduled for 8am to accommodate a busy breakfast rush with the family, or even kiddos pop into the frame during a call to say “hi.” What we may not see is just how much of a struggle that could be for some in the long haul.
Enter again those notions of providing certainty and clarity, rightsizing job expectations, and showing empathy. While not the end-all-be-all answers, they provide a starting point. As employers and leaders, if we can minimize the x-factors, adapt the workloads, and show compassion as we navigate the road to recovery, we can retain employees—and at least mitigate some of the stressors that are pushing women out of their jobs and careers during this pandemic. Exceptional employers and leaders have always done this. And now, in exceptional times, I believe it must become the norm.
How you as a friend and co-worker can help
Likewise, for co-workers, it’s absolutely okay to check in with people on your team, your vendors, your clients, and other people in your network and simply ask how they’re doing. I’ve had many meetings where we informally go around the horn and talk about what’s going on outside of work. The shared experience of working remotely has a way of creating new norms, and perhaps starting a meeting with an informal check-in way on occasion is one of them.
This is an opportunity to listen, simply so someone can feel better by being heard, and so that we can pinpoint places where we can come in and offer some support.
Some challenges women are facing are beyond our capacity to help firsthand, yet we can identify them when we see them. If you or someone you know is struggling, here are a few resources in the U.S. that can help:
Mental health resources for women
The Office on Women’s Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human services, offers a wealth of resources on its website, along with a help line that can provide further resources as well.
The National Institute of Mental Health has an extended list of articles, resources, and links to services that can provide immediate help for people who are struggling to cope or who are in crisis.
Legal resources for women
A Better Balance is a nonprofit legal advocacy group that “uses the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security.” They offer a confidential help line that can provide people with information about their workplace rights.
The National Women’s Law Center offers complementary legal consultations and with questions about accessing paid sick leave and paid leave to care for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed because of COVID-19.
Stemming the tide together
As women leave the workforce worldwide, we’ve seen organizations lose precious talent, and we’ve seen women sacrifice their livelihoods and career paths. As such, the pandemic has exacted hard and human costs, ones that have fallen on women in outsized ways.
A problem of this scope is one for us to solve collectively. Apart from the bigger, broader solutions that may be forthcoming, as the employers and co-workers of women, there’s something we can do right now: reach out, listen, and act. These days call for more empathy and adaptation than ever before, particularly for the hard-working women who are doing it all—and then some.
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