Gender Roles, Pandemic, Lost Income: The Perfect Storm
Back in 1988, only around 57% of working-age women in America were working outside the home. Why is this number significant in 2021? Because we fell back to that level during the height of the pandemic. With schools, businesses, and childcare facilities shuttered, many working women had to make the shift home to care for children, and in some cases, elderly parents. In fact, 4 women left the workforce during the pandemic for every man. While most of these exits were voluntarily to provide care for loved ones, some women lost jobs outright when demand skydived. Are more women back out in the workplace now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us? Yes. Will many remain on the sideline post pandemic? Without a doubt. While job growth post-pandemic is steady, it is slow. Women, unfortunately, are disproportionally impacted by the slow uptick in employment. In fact, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) estimates that at the current rate of recovery, “women will need more than two years, or 28 straight months, to recover the jobs lost since February 2020.” In addition to lost income, the delayed return to work impacts annual wage growth, promotion potential, and retirement savings.
The Fine Print
A year and a half of pandemic losses and challenges puts workplace gender disparities under the microscope. According to Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, there is “a collective penalty we’re all going to pay for forcing women to figure out how to manage a global health emergency on their own.” Cooper notes that when the crises come, women are often the assumed caregivers and expected to “drop everything” to manage the home front.
That said, women are penalized in “normal times” for having a family. The facts are clear and staggering. For every childbirth, a woman in the workforce loses 4% of potential lifetime earnings. Simultaneously, a man’s income grows for every child added to the family. Why are women financially penalized for having children? Workplace discrimination, high childcare costs, and the absence of universal paid parental leave mean that women are forced to choose between career and parenthood. The longer a woman is out of the labor force and functioning as a caregiver, the harder it is to return to the labor force later.
While organizational leaders cannot change society’s gender norms, they do have the power to create supportive environments for women, and men alike, who need to balance their professional careers and the demands of family. For starters, enact policies that celebrate growing families instead of enabling policies that penalize members of the team who have children. Paid leave for parents, affordable health care coverage, and organization-sponsored childcare support are essential in a thriving, inclusive business.
Give your employees workspace flexibility. If a job can be done remotely, or in a hybrid manner, let the members of your team know that these options are on the table. Perhaps most importantly, be good allies for the parents on you team. Teach them how to self-advocate for the support they need from the business.
The bigger challenge? Living beyond gender roles and stereotypes. (a topic for a dedicated post in the future!)