While women — and particularly women of color — have faced an uphill battle for equity since women broke into the workforce at scale during World War II, the COVID-19 pandemic upset the delicate balance that women had been holding and led to a massive employment exodus that Vice President Kamala Harris called “a national emergency.”
The statistics are flooding in at an alarming rate with overwhelming headlines. Behind the research is a stark and startling reality: The women have left the building.
This is the first in a five-part series, published in partnership with Businessolver, outlining the national employment crisis facing women in the United States and strategic recommendations for employers to implement or enhance specific programs and policies to recruit and retain women. In each articles, we’ll look at one of the key challenges women are facing and what employers can do to retain, recruit and attract women back through greater support and more equitable work practices.
The workforce pandemic no one saw coming
Time Magazine called it a “she-cession,” while another term floating around is “wexit.” But clever wordsmithery aside, the ripple effects of this blow to the workforce are going to take years, if not a generation, to overcome.
Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, women had edged out men in the workforce by a tiny percentage, giving hope to an eventual move toward workplace equity, at least in practice if not in profit. Women still lag men in pay, with a woman earning anywhere from 53 cents to 85 cents on the dollar compared with the average man’s pay.
The factors contributing to this exodus are complex, bringing a different and darker meaning to the cliché “women and children first.” It’s the workforce pandemic no one saw coming:
- More than 5.4 million women’s jobs have been eliminated from the U.S. workforce between February 2020 and January 2021.
- Since March 2020, at least 2.3 million women have left the U.S. workforce, compared with 1.8 million men.
- Seventy-six percent of mothers with children under age 10 say child care is one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, compared with 54 percent of fathers with young children.
- Since March 2020, 28 percent of women with kids under age 18 at home have temporarily or permanently left the workforce to become a primary caregiver to their children, compared with 10 percent of men.
- Women of color are being hit disproportionately hard, with 9.1 percent of Latinas and 8.4 percent of Black women unemployed, compared with 5.7 percent of white women.
- More than 2 in 5 of the 12.2 million women’s jobs lost between February and April 2020 have not yet returned.
Stopping the ‘she-cession’
But this is just temporary, right? Once we hit our economic stride, get vaccinated, reopen schools and get back to normal, the women will come back … right?
Not necessarily. The problems contributing to the she-cession are multifaceted, and many have been building long before the pandemic. Some are systemic issues requiring legislative or more holistic national action that will take years to implement. Still, there are definitely actionable steps employers can take to make their workplaces more female-friendly in the near future.
Beyond the ideals of workplace equity and empathy, there’s a real bottom-line incentive to getting and keeping women at work: Increased female labor force participation could accelerate U.S. GDP growth, adding a staggering $5.87 trillion to the global stock market in 10 years.
Employers looking to take a share of that growth and put a stopgap in the she-cession can best put their investment and energy into four key areas:
- Dependent care
- Mental health
- Equal pay
- Flexible work
The next four articless in this series will take a deeper dive into how employers can address each of these key areas to help working women, and the American workforce at large, recover. Up next: dependent care.
This articles is excerpted and adapted with permission from Businessolver’s white paper, “Where Have All the Women Gone?”