In April of 2020, amid a U.S. economy newly upended by COVID-19, researchers at Northwestern University published a paper highlighting patterns already emerging in the current recession. The research noted some key ways 2020 was shaping up to be different from “regular” recessions.
Past recessions, because they were caused by routine economic contractions rather than global crises like the pandemic, typically impacted men’s employment more substantially than women’s. The industries first to feel the effects were often male-dominated, such as construction and manufacturing. The COVID-19 recession, however, combines a litany of unique factors, all of which spell trouble for women’s employment. Service and hospitality jobs, overwhelmingly occupied by women, were devastated by early social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders. Lack of childcare also posed a major issue, with widespread shutdowns on schools and daycares leaving those who still had jobs without the support systems that enabled them to work. Even women who were able to perform their jobs remotely faced the herculean task of working while simultaneously providing childcare and facilitating distance learning.
This combination of factors has already spurred a mass exodus of women from the workforce. Particularly jarring, given things look very different only last year. In January of 2020 women outnumbered men in the workforce, with women holding just over half of all payroll jobs in the U.S. But the pandemic quickly decimated this numerical advantage, with women accounting for 100% of the 140,000 net jobs lost in December 2020.
The resulting female recession has become what many, including President Biden, are calling a national emergency. Experts warn that this outflow will have profound effects not only for women, by way of losses in pay equity and decreases in women inhabiting leadership roles, but for overall economic recovery as well. As the number of two-income households declines, consumer spending is expected to decline in kind. There is also a growing body of evidence that shows having a diverse team at the top can positively impact company profits and share performance. It’s clear that fewer working women equals dire economic consequences at the individual, company and country level.
With the federal pandemic response currently aimed at vaccination efforts and immediate financial relief, the critical first steps in combating this issue must be taken by the private sector. Fortunately, there are some accessible and concrete ways that employers can act now that will have substantial impact on keeping women in the workforce.
Flexible schedules have been widely discussed since COVID forced much of the nation’s workforce into remote work situations, while simultaneously balancing childcare, distance learning requirements and other household responsibilities. However, truly flexible scheduling goes far beyond the triage measures that have thus far helped us weather the pandemic. It involves letting go of the traditional nine-to-five, five days a week schedule and in-person office expectations that have been requisite to professional advancement. This may mean continuing remote work arrangements after the pandemic ends, or allowing employees to designate “on the clock” time that falls entirely outside of traditional work hours. These flexible arrangements can be built out now, but continued after COVID subsides to create individualized solutions that are mutually beneficial to the organization and its employees.
Of course, not all businesses are able to offer employees such flexibility. If the business requires set hours or in-person work, then focus must be placed on creating the infrastructure working women need to thrive. Affordable, on-site childcare can remove one major hurdle, as can dedicated lactation rooms for new mothers.
Examining parental leave policies is another hugely important factor in supporting working women–and that does not apply solely to maternity leave. Overall, working men take only a fraction of the leave that women take upon the birth of a child. One study found that while 90% of new fathers take some time away from the office post-birth, the majority of men take less than 10 days. The disparities in leave times among men and women can serve not only to reinforce outdated gender roles as they pertain to childcare, but to harm the careers of new mothers who take longer leave. Implementing gender-neutral parental leave policies and ensuring that men are using them at rates equal to women are necessary steps in preventing new mothers from leaving the workforce altogether, or experiencing the burnout that comes with being the primary caregiver if they remain.
Finally, if women do need to downshift or put their careers on hold, we must ensure they have a way back in once they’re ready to return. Companies should be working to actively recruit parents or caregivers who have left the workforce. Returnship programs designed to help women re-launch their careers have been hugely successful at companies like Intuit, PayPal, Goldman Sachs, IBM, General Motors and more. These programs allow returning workers a chance to resharpen skills after a career pause, and ultimately benefit companies by way of employees that are more driven and engaged.
Making changes that eliminate these types of barriers for women in all professions, not just white collar industries, can significantly impact the number of women remaining in the workforce. In the long-term, national policies that help to lower child-care costs, mandate paid time off for new parents and give access to universal pre-K will be necessary. But in the short-term employers must be willing to adopt new policies, as study after study continues to underscore how our country’s economic health hinges on a diverse workforce. Without working women, it simply doesn’t work.