- Since last February, nearly 2.4 million women have exited the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- The joblessness trend could reverse progress towards gender equality, and threatens to stunt economic growth and cripple companies' ability to compete and succeed in the years ahead.
Amidst the promising news of fewer Covid-19 cases, accelerating vaccine rollout, and capacity increases at restaurants, is the still sobering and outsized impact the pandemic is having on women and their careers.
At the beginning of last year, women were pretty much on equal ground with men, holding 50.03% of all jobs. A quick look at some recent numbers tells a much different story. The January jobs report shows that 275,000 women left the workforce that month, compared with 71,000 men according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since last February, nearly 2.4 million women have exited the labor market in total, far more than the 1.8 million men who have left the workforce. And this isn't just a U.S. problem. Women have been at the epicenter of joblessness because of the pandemic in 17 of the 24 Organization for Economic Cooperation Development countries that reported an overall rise in unemployment in 2020.
All of this adds up to what some economists are calling a "shecession" — a significant decline in economic activity over months or years that just happens to be impacting women the hardest. PwC's Women in Work index posits that because so many women have retreated from the labor market, women's progress at work has been reversed to 2017 levels.
Pandemic's disproportionate effect on women
While that's certainly disheartening news for women, it will likely have a chilling effect across the entire economy. The disproportionate effect of Covid-19 — or more precisely, the shutdowns imposed to control it — will not only reverse progress towards gender equality, but also threatens to stunt economic growth and cripple companies' ability to compete and succeed in the years ahead.
Without the robust contribution of women in the labor market, "there will be an avalanche effect on every part of society," says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, the human capital management software company. "It will show up in the way we serve our customers and every other stakeholder."
Some business leaders are pushing back against the idea that this is an issue that women alone have to solve. "This is not a women's issue, this is a leadership and economic issue," says Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business. The telecom giant recently launched a series of initiatives aimed at addressing the ongoing crisis of women leaving the workforce, including mentoring, training, and awareness programs. "This last year has put a spotlight on the fact that women carry a much bigger burden of household responsibilities," she adds. "That creates its own stress and in many instances women have been afraid to talk about what they need to be successful at work."
A CNBC/Survey Monkey Women at Work survey conducted in February bears this out. More than half of the working women who responded say they are experiencing burnout at least some of the time; 15% say they feel that way all the time.
Flexible work as an employer solution
The most promising news is that more companies are beginning to realize that this is an organizational challenge that needs the collective brain power of everyone. "A roomful of women, as amazing as they are, will not solve this problem," says Laura Fuentes, chief human resources officer at Hilton. To prevent even more women from opting out of the workforce in the years ahead "we need leadership to step up, and in the world right now most leadership positions are held by men. That's why we need women and men to be part of the solution as companies try to figure this out."
For many organizations, flexible work arrangements are going to be critical to solving the challenges women are facing. Erwin of Verizon cites a report the company recently published showing that the top-rated benefit mentioned by women is flexible work hours. That was followed by mental health resources and new benefits that address pandemic-related needs.
When it comes to mapping out a return to the office strategy, "we're not going back to what was because that didn't work," Erwin says. Instead, the company launched an initiative called Work Forward that is analyzing all 135,000 jobs within Verizon to figure out how they should look going forward. Christy Pambianchi, Verizon CHRO says about 15,000 to 20,000 of these jobs are going to be permanent work from home, another huge tranche will be a hybrid of a few days in the office and a few remote, and others will have to be done on-site. The purpose of the effort, she adds, is to offer women—and in fact, all employees—the flexibility they need to be their most effective both at home and at work.
At Hilton, Fuentes says flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all solution. "That kind of definition defeats the whole purpose of flexibility," she adds. Rather, as the hotel chain considers how best to keep women from leaving, it's looking at each job function to help define what works. For hotel staff that need to be on-site, that means 10-day advance schedules so that childcare and other family-related issues can be arranged. For office staff, that will mean flexible schedules, remote work, and hybrid arrangements.
Of course, the government can do its part to help solve this problem. The U.S. is among the richest countries in the world, but still does not have federally mandated maternity leave. The Biden administration is at least moving in the right direction. On March 8—International Women's Day—President Biden signed an executive order creating a Gender Policy Council that addresses these issues. It's based in the White House and reports directly to him.
The pandemic shined a glaring spotlight on a workplace template that was never created to accommodate working women—and most especially, working mothers—in the first place. As companies grapple with the future of work, and what that will look like post-pandemic, they have an opportunity to create something that best reflects the roles and responsibilities of women's lives today. "As a society, we can't afford to have the attrition we've seen with women throughout this pandemic," says Workhuman's Pemberton. "That type of talent loss has all kinds of repercussions that companies just can't afford to deal with right now."