Over the past century, women have made tremendous gains toward inclusion and equity in the workforce. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo many of those gains if we don’t take protective measures to better support women professionals.
In July, International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials told CNN, “The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to roll back gains in women’s economic opportunities, widening gender gaps that persist despite 30 years of progress.”
How Are Women in the Workforce Being Harmed by the Coronavirus Pandemic?
The industries that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic—retail, tourism, and hospitality—tend to employ women. Women make up 49% of the retail industry, but 55% of its lowest-wage workers, the demographic most likely to be subjected to layoffs. Women make up 59% of people employed in tourism, and they comprise an overwhelming 70% of people employed in hospitality. Because of forced closures and decreases in business operations, many women in those industries have been among the millions of Americans who have been laid off since the pandemic began.
As we move into the fall months, there are increased calls for schools to reopen. Again, women carry the brunt of this pressure and this burden. Women make up 76% of teachers, which means they’re most likely to grapple with the risks of returning to in-person teaching. In some cases, we’ve seen teachers making wills or preparing templates for the death of a student. These are tall orders for any professional, but they seem especially difficult to stomach since teachers are historically underpaid and working in underfunded settings. Given all this, it’s understandable why some women might choose to leave the profession altogether.
And finally, we come to the third way that women have been left unsupported through the pandemic: child-rearing. Mothers who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs have been forced into the lose-lose juggling act of caring for their children while continuing business as usual with their careers. That’s one unpaid job and one that’s likely to be paid at around 71 cents compared to the dollar a man would earn for the same work. The pandemic may potentially scar a generation of working mothers if it doesn’t drive them out of the workforce entirely.
What Can We Do to Support Women and Keep Them in the Workforce?
When you lay it out there, it looks bleak. We’ll grant you that. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There are measures that each industry can take to better support women in the workforce, especially in light of these new burdens.
Remote Professional Teams
Pre-pandemic, some held a fear that if people worked from home, they may not accomplish anything. As millions have adjusted to remote-as-the-norm, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s more likely to be the opposite. When you can never leave the office, you’re more likely to work after-hours. (Take this story, for example. It’s being written at 9 pm!) Working mothers have found that their work is bleeding into their parenting and their parenting is bleeding into their work. If you notice this happening, there are some things you can do to help:
- Allow for interruptions: Life is messy. Kids are your new coworkers. When interruptions happen, show them that you understand.
- Embrace a ‘This email could be a meeting, and so it is’ approach: Yes, relationships build a better work life and face-to-face interactions can help build that comradery. But nothing says “I understand that you have a lot on your plate right now” like putting it in writing and forgoing the pressure to find a shirt that your child hasn’t covered in food.
- Schedule the meetings you need around homeschooling and parenting schedules: Have you asked the working moms on your team which parts of the day are most challenging for them? When you ask for this information up front, you can avoid scheduling virtual meetings during those times. This increases trust and avoids constant rescheduling.
- Accept lighter workloads: Yes, in an ideal world, everyone would be operating at 100%, but you know, we’re in a pandemic. Ask yourself, “Is this essential?” If the answer is no, give your employees some space and grace. Your understanding and accommodation will increase your employees’ investment in their jobs, a marker that goes along with increased job performance and retention.
Allowing teachers to work remotely and continue learning-from-home will go a long way in improving their safety and mediating the risk of a mass exodus from the teaching force. Our children’s futures depend on teachers, and we can show how much that matters to us by investing in our teachers’ present.
Tourism, Retail, and Hospitality
OK, this one is a little trickier. There’s no magic undo button for millions of layoffs. But there are a couple of steps we can take to reduce the harm to women in these industries:
- Hire women
- Promote women
No matter what industry you’re in, the first step toward preventing this harm is understanding the risk. By taking the time to consider and empathize with these struggles, you’ve taken the first step to do what needs to be done to keep women in the workforce.