International Women’s Day is one time of year that I always think of my daughters and my granddaughter. As a mother, I want them to have a better life than I’ve had – and I’m lucky I’ve had a good life. As I think about my colleagues and other women I know, I think we’ve had some real setbacks this year because of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, we were moving towards equity in wage, opportunity, and education. On this day last year, I wrote about the need for an increase in female financial independence, and for women to support women. There was a long road ahead of us, but certainly progress was being made. For all the growth women in the workforce have achieved, and all the diversity and inclusion efforts made by organizations in recent years, much of this momentum came to a halt when COVID-19 hit.
In September of 2020, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, as compared to 216,000 men. It is estimated that across the globe, female job losses due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times higher than male job losses. In fact, the National Women’s Law Center reports that women labor participation is at its lowest (57%) since 1988.
Prior to the pandemic, 46% of women worked in low-wage jobs, earning a median of $10.93 an hour. Women of color are even more likely to have a low-paying job. Even women who were in high-paying industries were still earning $0.92 compared to the dollar of a man with a similar background.
This past year, though, the disparities were much more severe. In low-paying, female-dominated industries like retail sales, food services and hospitality there were significant layoffs. Further, healthcare professionals, the majority of which are women, did not necessarily lose their jobs but were faced with unprecedented risk of exposure, inflexible schedules, and stress. Job loss also meant a decrease in benefits such as health insurance for women, making access to healthcare further inequitable, and during a pandemic, no less.
COVID-19 highlighted the already present childcare crisis, which grew with the closure or cancelation of schools, daycare and other childcare centers such as camps and recreational activities and left working parents in an impossible situation. Further, remote learning became the norm, and for those with younger kids, this has meant a lot of hands-on time for parents, typically during work hours. All of this during what has been an overwhelming time for even the luckiest of us. The results?
A survey from May and June of 2020 reports that one in four women who left the workforce during that time did so due to lack of childcare. Between last February and August, mothers of children ages 12 years and younger lost 2.2 million jobs, compared to 870,000 jobs lost for fathers of that same group.
If we think about the future of women in the workforce, according to McKinsey and Oxford Economics, employment for women may not recover until 2024, which is two years past the estimate for men. A domino effect could play out, if nothing is done to stop it. For example, when women exit the workforce, even if they view it as temporary, they will be disadvantaged when and if they want to return, likely to miss out on promotions, pay and career paths similar to the trajectory they once were on. Further, they will be in a worse spot when it comes to retirement savings, even without the assistance of an employer-sponsored retirement plan (which is another factor). Since Social Security is based on lifetime earnings, time out of the workforce will lessen that assistance down the road.
So, what can we do to turn the clock back? Here are some things that policymakers and businesses should consider:
- Wage parity, period!
- A revamp of the childcare system such as more federal funding and/or tax credits that incentivize both parents to work
- An increase in flexible work schedules
- Initiatives that support digital literacy in women, in addition to general education, so that they have the same kinds of opportunities in a remote world
- Continue to implement paid leave policies for family and medical leave as well as sick leave
- Implement flexible benefits programs that allow furloughed and laid off people to cover this temporary period
Although this has been a challenging time, we can’t give up! Let’s remember that this year we welcomed the first ever female Vice President, a woman of color, into the White House. We are seeing more focus on diversity and we are hearing more women speak out publicly about their inequitable experiences. Let’s use this encouragement to get back on track and create a better future for our daughters and granddaughters. If there’s one thing we women have proven, it’s our resilience. So, don’t lose hope. Regroup and press on! Happy International Women’s Day!