2020 was, without a doubt, a historical year both in the United States and around the world. The impact of COVID-19 is still being felt globally and the economic repercussions are just starting to truly echo across industries. As we move into 2021 and beyond, here are a few ways the pandemic has changed the landscape for women - for good and for bad - and where there are opportunities for changes to increase gender equity and diversity.
For many industries, the economic impact of COVID-19 will be felt for months and years to come. While some sectors saw growth and others are rebounding quickly, it is evident that economic support will be necessary for businesses to survive. Women are more pessimistic than men about our current economic position, per a Bank of America report, with only 32% of female small business owners saying they think their local economy will improve in the next 12 months and only 28% saying they think the national economy will improve in 2021.
As governments around the world start to assess stimulus bills, social assistance programs, and other responses to the economic situation, it is important that a gender lens be applied to achieve greater equality, opportunities, and protections for women. When the pandemic began, 2.6 million women left the workplace, sending women’s unemployment rate skyrocketing. While some of those women have returned to work, as the economy rebuilds, we need to be advocates for ensuring that women are able to return to work.
Reconsider Child Care
In March 2020, schools across the country transitioned to virtual learning, daycare centers closed down. As families found themselves quarantined at home together, it became clear that, despite what many believed as a move to more equitable division of household chores and childcare, women still are responsible for a vast majority of childcare. According to the United Nations policy brief on COVID-19, women spend three times as many hours than men doing unpaid care and domestic work. Vox Media published a cartoon that succinctly illustrates the reality of adults who aren’t working due to caregiving obligations, and 80% of them are women. The lack of childcare support is particularly problematic for women in essential worker roles - in the United States, women hold 78% of hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store roles. This has often put women in positions where they must choose between work and home, which is rather old fashioned and unrealistic for this era.
The past year has illustrated how essential having child care options as well as having flexible work arrangements that allow families to make decisions that work best for them. As companies start evaluating how to proceed post-pandemic, allowing more work-from-home options, telework, and flexible hours can ease the burden of balancing child care and domestic demands. By changing the narrative of gender roles, companies can thrive with the talent that women bring to the workforce. Finally, companies should promote outspoken leadership and bias training to help employees mitigate long standing gender biases that the pandemic is amplifying.
Women, Attrition, and Job Loss
Women still predominate in traditional care roles, such as teachers, nurses, nursing home staff, childcare, etc. 2020 was an illustration of how often those roles remain underpaid and underfunded, leading to burnout and high attrition; especially during the pandemic. In 2020, women downshifted or left the workforce altogether at higher rates than men, citing factors such as childcare burdens, lack of flexibility at work, feeling that they had to be “on” at all hours, or feeling unsafe at the workplace by lack of personal protective equipment.
Women - and particularly women of color - are also overrepresented in job sectors like hospitality, dining, retail, and tourism, all of which have been seriously impacted by the pandemic and will likely not see gains until 2022 and beyond. The December 2020 jobs report tells a harrowing story - while men gained 16,000 jobs, women lost 156,000 jobs. That means the net number of jobs lost were held entirely by women and overwhelmingly women of color.
To address this, businesses need to take a hard look at hiring and ensuring that there are job opportunities for women. Women will be struggling to reenter the workforce, so businesses and governments need to figure out what they need in terms of support to come back to work.
In order to keep women employed, companies should consider bringing in new performance criteria in line with what employees can reasonably achieve now, given additional stress and burdens at home. Businesses can also work to build a more sustainable culture for all employees, leading to higher retention and employee satisfaction. Finally, as some industries see permanent shifts in operations, job training and transitioning programs should be made available to women to help them shift into industries that will provide long term employment opportunities.
While there have been serious negative impacts for women with COVID-19 and the ensuing economic fallout, we also have an opportunity in 2021 and beyond to reevaluate our workplaces and adapt to a changing world. This also allows for reflection on hiring and retention practices that encourage shifting the paradigm and redefining what it means for a business - and its employees and leadership - to be resilient, powerful, and strong.
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