How COVID-19 Hurts Working Women

Hot off the press is the sixth annual report  from McKinsey and LeanIn on women in the workplace:  one of every four women is “considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to Covid-19.”  Other studies show that among parents with young children, mothers have lost four to five times more work hours than have fathers. And in September, four times as many women as men lost jobs.

This is not altogether surprising, and a new report, from AARP and S&P Global — which is appropriately titled Something’s Gotta Give — gives us more insight into why this is happening: it  found that almost 60% of employees working for large U.S. companies are spending more time on childcare and family caregiving since the outbreak of the pandemic. We live in a culture where women are still bearing primary responsibility  for family care and where there is also a sizable gender pay gap.  

As the study acknowledges, the pandemic could “also deal a serious blow to women in the workforce.” 

Indeed, in the words of Fordham Law School Professor Catherine Powell, the pandemic is laying “bare underlying structural inequalities facing communities of color.” Black women appear to be even more likely than others to consider stepping back from their work because of the pandemic.  Single mothers, “who are disproportionately Black and Brown,” find it even more challenging to balance their responsibilities at work and at home.

Nonetheless, in a forthcoming paper that I co-authored with Boston University School of Law Professor Linda McClain, we note that the pandemic  presents an opportunity to reduce gender-based inequalities.  The paper argues that crucial policies include workplace flexibility, paid family and sick leave, accessible health care, and affordable and high-quality child care, as well as addressing familial equity barriers to remote learning, and mandating greater recognition of — and better working conditions for — essential workers.

In accord with that hopeful note, Something’s Gotta Give observes that  the pandemic has caused more attention to work/family friendly policies. More than one-third of companies have increased flexible policies since the pandemic began, and the study also found that flexibility leads to a lower female turnover rate. Indeed, companies with flexible hours and equal recruitment strategies designed to ensure non-discrimination and equal opportunity recruited more women. 

On a national level,  the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included funding so that businesses could provide paid sick and caregiving leave to their workers (although the legislation excluded all workers in businesses with more than 500 employees).

Such initiatives, which are part of “a culture that embraces work-life balance,” are  “vital to support a more inclusive workforce and achieve collective economic benefits,” says Martina Cheung, President of S&P Global Market Intelligence, who contributed an interview for the report based on her own leave experience.

In terms of which companies have adopted more family-friendly policies, the report found that companies with revenue over $1 billion are more likely to offer paid parental leave (58% of large companies vs. 42% of smaller companies) as well as somewhat more likely to offer flexible work schedules (43% of large corporations vs. 38% of smaller companies. 

Regardless of the type of leave offered, however, on average, senior managers take far less time for parental or family care than more junior employees. Just 23% of senior managers took more than four weeks of leave, versus about 30% of their more junior staff.

As this report – taken with the many other reports on stress, job loss, and family care – shows, the lesson for companies that want to attract and retain the workforce they need is to offer flexible work and better recognition of family care responsibilities.  

But that’s not enough. As Professor McClain told me, she is encouraged that, “as the report finds, the pandemic has ‘elevated the importance of offering benefits for family caregivers,’”  but she is concerned about “the sizeable percentage of employers that still do not offer such benefits,” showing “the limits of private solutions” and the need for strong federal policy.  Plus, Professor Powell points out, “as an economic matter, many women cannot afford to reduce their hours,” so, “while family-friendly policies are an important piece of the puzzle,”  they are not enough.

* * *

Something’s Gotta Give is based on the results of a survey conducted by S&P Global and AARP of more than 1600 employees of large companies (those with more than 1000 workers). It focused on both caring for young children and caring for other relatives.

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