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Even with vaccinations in sight, COVID-19 continues to ravage world health and drag economies downward. The resulting recession – the shecession – in the United States is having a sea-change impact on women.
For nearly a year, the pandemic pulled many women back into the home. Their new dual role: Serving as the primary caregiver and educator of their families while working remotely. Others have been forced out of the workforce altogether. The numbers are frightening. And yet, the likely long-term impacts offer both challenges and glimmers of hope, all at the same time.
The Shecession: Glimmers of Hope
On the hope side, the probable long-term impact of the large number of women working from home is promising. After all, perhaps for the first time, business leaders and decision-makers have had a front-row seat to the invisible work of parenthood. As a result, companies have sprung into action and added flex-time schedules, mental health, and childcare benefits. Some have taken the additional step of bolstering their paid family leave policies. Additionally, the pandemic has proven that flexible work schedules and remote work are viable. The widely touted concerns with declining productivity while working from home are unfounded, according to reports.
Going forward, companies will continue to capitalize on the remote work tools into which they have invested so much money and time. Many have already stated they will allow a large percentage of employees to continue working remotely post-pandemic.
It is not just women and parents that will benefit from this change. Other groups traditionally shut out of the workforce or marginalized to some degree due to an uncooperative infrastructure should continue to flourish. For example, people with disabilities should find more doors open to them they once found shut.
The long-term possibilities for many segments of the workforce are exciting – many are long overdue.
The Shecession: Our Current Realities
However, right now, the recession is having very harmful impacts with a disproportionate impact on women. It’s true: Overall unemployment numbers for women continue to improve since the early part of last year. But these numbers do not include women who are no longer seeking work. Data from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) is staggering:
In the month between August and September 2020, four times as many women dropped out of the workforce as did men.
“Over 1.1 million workers ages 20 and over dropped out of the labor force last month – meaning they are no longer working or looking for work,” NWLC wrote at the time. “Of the workers who left the labor force, 865,000 (80.0%) were women, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women.”
Let us pause and let these numbers sink in. It is no wonder so many people are referring to the current economic crisis not only as a recession, but also as the “shecession.”
The Pandemic Magnified Inequalities
Many employees struggle with serving as the primary caregiver of elderly relatives and children. Regardless of being driven by choice or necessity, this burden impacts women in more significant numbers than men. The pressures are particularly acute for women of color, who are often more likely to be breadwinners, care for multiple generations, and contract COVID-19.
For example, the unemployment rate for Black women and Latinas in September 2020 was more than twice as high as before the pandemic. These women were – and are – disproportionately impacted due to high job loss rates in public-facing industries such as Leisure and Hospitality, Retail, Education, and Health Services. Many of these jobs cannot be accomplished remotely; as a result, companies eliminated these roles. What’s more, even when the pandemic is over, these industries are sure to be smaller and to look significantly different than they did leading up to the crisis. That means this critical cohort of people will not have as many of these jobs waiting for them when they return to the workforce.
There is no doubt: The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the labor market.
The Good News: Both Genders See the Possibilities
The good news is that men – who still are overwhelmingly the senior decision-makers in the business world – now recognize the opportunity to build more equitable workplaces. They see the need for more role model flexibility for all genders. HR leaders also see the issues that the recession has laid bare. More important, they see concrete actions taking place now that will positively impact the future.
The silver lining is that this crisis and these dismaying trends create an opportunity for leaders to pause and think. They can now ask themselves how their companies should adapt to survive and grow. They now must consider what they aspire to become as an organization and as an employer.
Yes, the shecession is real. But the companies that embrace more worker-centric, equitable, and inclusive workplace practices will reap the many benefits of these long-overdue changes. For them and their employees, the horizon is bright.
Editors’ Note: In addition to today being International Women’s Day, this is Women’s History Month. Each March, we commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. To learn more, click here.