COVID-19 Is Pushing Women Out of the Workforce
Corporations need to fight to rebuild a diverse workforce destroyed by COVID.
Posted September 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- The COVID-19 crisis has reportedly forced over 2 million women out of the workforce.
- To better support women in the workplace, companies should focus on equal pay, greater flexibility, and dismantling gender bias.
- Now is the time for companies to adjust or extend programs to help support their employees during a time of tremendous need.
Prior to the pandemic in early 2020, female representation in corporate America and the workforce was making gains. While the U.S. begins to reopen, and the economy is looking up as growth rates improve, a return to pre-pandemic levels of employment for women is slow to change. The pandemic is a health and financial crisis that has altered the workplace forever. All employees have been impacted by the pandemic, yet women have been especially adversely impacted. In putting America to work, this post explores the status of the changing workforce.
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, over 2 million women have been forced out of the workforce. “More than two out of every five women who were unemployed in February 2021, had been unemployed for 6 months or longer," (National Women's Law Center, 2021). Unemployment rates for Black women and Latinas remain much higher than for workers overall. Participation in the labor force has hit its steepest decline for women since World War II. The National Women’s Law Center indicates that female workforce participation has dropped to 57%, the lowest level since 1988. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for women peaked at 15.8% in April 2020. In June 2021, the economy gained 850,000 jobs compared to 583,000 jobs gained in May 2021. Women accounted for 47.6% of job gains last month, gaining 405,000 jobs while men gained 445,000. Nevertheless, women will need more than nine straight months of job gains at last month’s level to recover the nearly 3.8 million net jobs they lost since February 2020.
In a 2020 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Women in the Workplace, research shows that women, especially women of color, are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis. The report indicates the pandemic has delayed careers, risked financial security, and has exacerbated challenges in the workforce for women. The major challenges include child care, homeschooling responsibilities, and burnout. Struggling to juggle so much, women feel they are required to always be “on.” Working a full day at work followed by additional hours of child care and housework, they are working all hours of the day or engaged in “a double-shift,” work at both the office and at home. In addition, Black and Latina women face a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their communities and stability in their homes and finances.
Research has shown that women are often the project managers of their households, in charge of child care and housework. Approximately 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say child care is one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, compared to 54% of fathers with young children. For Latina and Black mothers, they are more likely to be the sole providers of the household. Black mothers are twice as likely to shoulder all the responsibility of the household and Latina mothers are “1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework," (McKinsey Global Institute, July 2020).
Women of color are twice as likely to have lost a loved one to COVID as well as navigated incidents of racial violence that continue to plague the United States and bring with it an emotional toll for these women. According to the report, Black women feel uncomfortable sharing concerns about racial inequity or issues of grief with their counterparts, indicating they do not have allies in the workplace. An ally is defined as someone who uses their power to support or advocate for others with less power.
As a result of these dynamics, those women who can afford it have simply downshifted their careers by reducing their hours, while other women left the workforce completely to work full-time in their homes. Those devastated by COVID have simply lost jobs completely and are forced into unemployment. All these outcomes have placed families in levels of instability that have long-term economic consequences.
Here are some recommendations companies should consider to support women in the workplace.
Women are still paid only 82 cents for every dollar paid to men and for women of color, the wage gap is even larger. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women of every race are paid less than men at all education levels. Women make up two-thirds of the nearly 20 million workers in the low-wage workforce even though they make up less than half of all workers. Companies need to advocate that the Equal Pay Act be updated to address these inequities.
Help to avoid burnout and examine a sustainable pace at work. This is critical to helping all employees, but especially working mothers. Managers and supervisors need to communicate clearly that employees need downtime and to find ways to create work-life balance. Organizations need to look at productivity and performance potentials prior to the pandemic and re-examine that model in the new working environment and re-establish the working day. Set up specific hours for meetings and allow them to take place virtually. Set policies around responding to emails outside of normal business hours, increase flexibility around working in teams, look at ways to provide on-site child care for employees or set up partnerships with child care centers, and help to subsidize child care costs for families. Allowing for more flexibility in hours, meetings, policies around communication, hybrid schedules, and support for child care can help employees and increase sustainability within the workplace.
Dismantle Gender Bias
Companies should take steps to address bias against women in the workplace. Organizations need to reexamine their policies on maternity leave, family leave, mental health, and child care. Companies need to employ diversity, equity, and inclusion policies designed to dismantle bias and create a more supportive work environment. They need to look at their processes for promotion and mitigate any biases that women may face. Lastly, companies need to make sure all their employees are aware of policies designed to support and promote equity. Creating a more inclusive work environment can help to support not just women, but all employees in the organization.
Increasing Overall Support
During the pandemic, many employees have been faced with tremendous challenges. Now is the time for companies to adjust or extend programs to help support their employees during a time of tremendous need. Companies should look and make sure all their employees are fully aware of the benefits in place to support them. Companies should provide a weekly newsletter and share information on benefits available, such as mental health counseling, financial advising, resources for homeschooling, and additional comp-time or increasing paid leave for those in need. Companies should also look at partnering with those in social work and ensuring that individuals are fully aware of all social programs they or family members may be eligible for during this time. Many employees are struggling, but some women are taking on additional roles of responsibility that go far beyond their own families. For example, they may be taking the lead to help extended family members who are food- and housing-insecure. If they can gain access to additional support and access to information to help them and their extended family members, it can provide a higher level of stability and assist them in staying within the organization.
As we continue to navigate the crisis of the pandemic, it is critical that we all work together to keep women and all employees in the workforce. As anxiety grows on when and if the pandemic will end anytime in the future, it is imperative for employers to engage in communication early and often with employees. This level of communication can help employees make better decisions on how to navigate this space and how to best provide for their families.
Now more than ever, human resources (HR) and entire HR teams need to communicate with grace and humility during this difficult time. For example, decisions that families need to make around vaccinations, work schedules, and caregiving are very different from those who have children or parents in the household versus those who do not. Communication and processes are really about health and safety during this challenging time. No matter how difficult the information or circumstance may be, it is vital to foster a culture of empathy toward women and all employees in the organization. To help sustain women in the workplace and to ensure we get all employees through this crisis, leaders need to lead by example, and we all need to come together and invest in better understanding in the level of need for our colleagues who are dealing with more. This approach helps companies to increase their level of support and to maintain an increased focus on supporting their employees as complete people.
McKinsey Global Institute, “COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects” (July 15, 2020), https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-…; McKinsey & Company, “COVID-19: Investing in Black lives and livelihoods” (April 14, 2020)
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average hours per day parents spent caring for and helping household children as their main activity,” American Time Use Survey (2019), https://www.bls.gov/charts/american-time-use/activity-by-parent.html; Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 1989).
National Women's Law Center (NWLC), The Wage Gap Has Robbed Women of Their Ability to Weather COVID-19. Jasmine Tucker. March 2021.