One of the more widely discussed economic impacts of the pandemic has been the Female Recession. Recently, the New York Times’ Patricia Cohen provided an excellent, yet disturbing look at both the short-term and long-term negative consequences of this phenomenon. But even as new stats and stories continue to roll in, we must start to look ahead and understand what can be done to build back these jobs and put women’s economic power on a path to sustainable growth.
Unsustainable Pre-COVID Gains
Up until March, there was a litany of good news demonstrating women’s gains economically and in the workforce. The number of college degrees earned by women was increasing. For the first time, there were equal numbers of male and female college graduates working. In fact, female participation in the workforce had hit an all-time high by the end of last year. With this, Pew Research also found that working women were gravitating to higher paying jobs, boosting their average hourly rate from $15 in 1980 to $22 in 2018.
But a closer look reveals that not all was wine and roses. Those gains were built on unsteady ground and there were already signs that the forward momentum had the potential to stall. According to Ashley Putnam, Director Economic Growth and Mobility for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, research conducted in 2018 showed that women were at greater risk of holding jobs that could become automated, especially women of color. Further, a Center for American Progress study found that mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to report the negative impact of childcare issues on their careers.
If these two female workforce-related issues of job type and child care sound familiar, it’s because they have become the primary drivers of the Female Recession. The pandemic did not create these challenges, it only accelerated and exacerbated the pre-pandemic root weaknesses.
Consequences of Female Job Loss
The sudden loss of jobs in sectors dominated by female workers and the absence of viable childcare options led to more than 865,000 women dropping out of the workforce between August and September of this year, compared to only 216,000 men during that same period (according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of Bureau of Labor stats). This trend is likely to continue as a survey by Lean In and McKinsey shows one in four women are considering reducing hours or leaving the workforce altogether in the next year.
Even worse, says Dalila Wilson-Scott, EVP and Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast Corporation, “women of color are disproportionately affected by this pandemic-induced recession.” This can intensify wealth and earning gaps that existed before the outbreak. To help, she is leading Comcast’s partnerhip with programs serving these communities in order to advance the training and support they need, with an emphasis on helping women of color close the gender gap in the tech sector.
This troubling trend of losing female representation in the workforce portends broader economic consequences for industry and society. Reams of research, including a recent 19-year survey by Pepperdine University documenting the correlation between companies that hire women executives and improved profitability, have proven women’s positive influence on competitive performance – gains that could be lost if we wipe out a generation of female workers. The Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation went further, estimating $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity if women continue to leave the workforce or reduce their hours.
It’s clear that as women’s job prospects change, so do the futures of business performance and economic prosperity. To have a positive impact on both, we must begin instituting immediate, near-term programs that can help lay a stronger foundation for meaningful, sustainable growth of higher paying jobs for women in the workforce.
Government Aid Programs
Government pandemic stimulus programs can help put money now into the pockets of families that need childcare to free up working mothers. Direct payments, tax breaks, and more can all improve care prospects.
Similarly, legislation designed to support daycares and afterschool programs can deliver this same impact for a wider population. For example, the House of Representatives’ Child Care is Essential Act – passed with bipartisan support in July – would have invested $50 billion in child care. Yet, because of Congressional inaction since then, the bill is languishing and families and entire childcare systems continue to suffer as a result. By voting this program into action, Congress could have an immediate positive impact on women across the country.
Workplace Support Efforts
Employers can also make immediate changes to help support working mothers and families. Implementing flexible schedules can provide parents dealing with uncertain school schedules some cushion when adjusting to last minute changes.
With several months of disruption still ahead, companies should begin to evaluate their current support programs and how these can be augmented. Simple changes could include setting standard check-ins by managers, devising reacclimation plans for employees adjusting to new schedules or returning to work, and assessing what other companies of a similar size are doing to support their employees.
Of course, these programs have to do more than provide lip service. Spectrum Labs CEO and Co-Founder Justin Davis suggests that changes come from the top-down and with the full support of senior leadership: “If the people at the top of your organization don’t truly believe in [the programs], then none of [them] will matter.”
In order to deliver lasting, sustainable impact on women’s economic and workforce prospects, we must then build upon these immediate relief programs with more fundamental changes. These should align with a few critical areas of need, including job training, the nation’s childcare system, and new policies and support both in the workplace and at home.
Reskilling and Upskilling for Women
To be competitive in a modern, digital-first workforce, women will have to learn new skills. Attainable, scalable reskilling and upskilling programs for tech and automation-enabled jobs are critical. Anne Gemmell, founder of Future Works PHL, points out that businesses and civic entities that want to remain competitive in the future will need to invest in both digital tools and the human talent needed to manage them.
Gemmell further adds that putting grants, apprenticeships, tax credits, and other financial incentives in place can help women transfer their skills within the workforce. But a post-pandemic world must also rethink how these types of programs are delivered. For example, rather than punish women forced to leave the workforce due to personal care obligations, design learning platforms and development programs with extension options that encourage women to resume their careers.
Rethinking Childcare in America
A fundamental transformation of our childcare system in the U.S. should also be on the table. The pandemic has shown that our schools double as both childcare programs for working mothers and nutritional outposts for many lower income families. Start and end times, school holidays, teacher in-service days, and even the sacrosanct summer break all create unrealistic expectations for how parents must juggle the responsibilities of both work and child rearing.
I like the six creative ways to rethink early childcare listed in this post by Rhian Evans Allivin and Lauren Hogan of the NAYEC, including paying teachers more and incentivizing employers.
Carol Austin, executive director of FirstUP, says that she is encouraged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce having prioritized the childcare system as part of its mission and wants to see local chambers of the same. “It could be a game changer if [we] together advocate that more public funds be allocated to a sector that is so foundational for working families.”
Workplace and Homefront Support
Armed with new skills and enabled by better childcare programs, women still need strong support networks within the workplace and at home. Employers can institute retention programs for women, enhance child and elder care programs, update sick pay policies, and more. PA Deputy Secretary of Workforce Development Sheila D. Ireland said that creating these inclusive cultures for women will be “fundamental to an organization’s competitive moving forward.”
It’s essential that these changes in attitudes and support are then mirrored on the home front by partners and spouses. The CEO of ecommerce retailer M. M. Lafleur reinforced this in a recent company email newsletter, saying “the quickest solution is for husbands and partners to step up, and generously – meaning without compromise, guilt, or interruption – give women some of their time back.”
No matter how long the pandemic persists or how fast the economic recovery, there is a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done to ensure women remain in the workforce. The outbreak threw systemic issues into stark relief this past March, and it will take a concerted, overlapping effort by a host of stakeholders to build a better foundation for working women. But the benefits of doing so are obvious, making the end game worth the effort.