Women’s progress toward equality was moving forward at a moderate pace. 2018 was widely considered to be the “Year of the Woman” marking the biggest wave of women elected to government ever, with 2,133 women sworn into America’s state legislatures, as well as holding 25 seats in the U.S. Senate and 101 seats in the House. In 2019, women ticked past 50% of the workforce in the U.S. for the first time during a non-recessionary period in American history. Riding that wave, world leaders, civil society and the private sector had set the stage for 2020 to be the biggest year yet for the advancement of women’s rights. Until the pandemic that is.
COVID-19 has been hard on women’s progress. McKinsey reports that while most people’s lives and work have been negatively affected by the crisis, their most recent analysis shows that, overall, women’s jobs and livelihoods are more vulnerable to the pandemic. According to the National Women’s Law Center, between February and April, women lost more than 12.1 million jobs, and only a third of those jobs returned in May and June. When comparing the unemployment rate for women versus men, women ages 20 and over have an unemployment rate of 11.2% compared to their male counterparts who have an unemployment rate of 10.1%. The June unemployment rate for women is 1.3 times higher than the highest unemployment rate women faced during the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery years, and 1 in 4 (25%) women working part-time wanted full-time work, but were unable to obtain it for economic reasons, such as their employer not giving them full-time hours. The outlook is even worse for Black and Latina woman as nearly 1 in 7 Black women (14.0%) ages 20 and over were unemployed in June, which is nearly 3 times higher than their pre-pandemic unemployment rate (4.8% in February), and more than 1 in 7 (15.3%) Latinas ages 20 and over were unemployed in June, over three times higher than their unemployment rate in February (4.9%)
A patchwork of back-to-school options is another potential wrench in women’s progress across the country. Boston Consulting Group’s recent study of working parents finds that 60% of parents have not found alternative childcare in the wake of school and daycare closures, and with modified return options available this fall, many additional women are leaving the workforce. Whether by choice or necessity, in terms of workforce and leadership participation, that is an action that could have ramifications for years to come.
We can’t let the events of this year stall our progress. In the study, “COVID-19 and Gender Equality: Countering the Regressive Effects,” McKinsey researchers defined three potential scenarios in the post–COVID-19 world of women at work. “The first is a gender-regressive ’do nothing’ scenario. It assumes that the higher negative impact of COVID-19 on women remains unaddressed, and it compares GDP outcomes in 2030 to the case in which women’s employment growth tracks that of men in the recovery. The second is a ’take action now’ scenario, which would improve parity relative to the gender-regressive one. The third is a ’wait to take action’ scenario continuing until the economic impact of COVID-19 subsides.”
The best option for a substantial increase in economic opportunity is to “take action now.” Policy makers would make decisions, in 2020 and beyond to significantly improve gender equality over the next decade. Researchers estimate that the global value of achieving best-in-region gender-parity improvements by 2030 could lead to $13 trillion of incremental GDP in that year and create 230 million new jobs for women globally.
Employers can also take action now. In fact, many are. One obvious action is to add flexibility to the workplace, for women and men, especially in these unprecedented times. And that doesn’t just mean remote work. It can also mean a four-day work week, or shifting work hours (especially now), and moving forward to better accommodate the difference between office hours and school hours, or the “child-care crisis between 3 and 5 p.m.”
In a community where public-school students are headed back two days a week, one healthcare system was recently quoted as saying that they have surveyed employees to find out their needs and are “aggressively pursuing creative solutions.”
“Our most precious resource is our employees, and we know the most precious thing in their lives is most often their children,” spokesperson Kaitlyn McConnell said. “As area schools release their plans for the start of the school year, CoxHealth knows that many of the system’s employees are anxious about what the next few months will mean for their children, and how the changes will affect their jobs. We also know that it’s important to keep our staff members at work and able to care for the community.”
That creative approach and many others are what’s needed right now. We need to collectively take action and keep women employed and in the pipeline for advancement. And we need to think big-picture and develop plans to regain the steps we may have lost during this crisis. We are all struggling with this continued uncertainty. These are the times when we need to come together to help each other through, not allow it to overwhelm us and remember that our progress is important, not only to women, but to everyone’s recovery. We can emerge from this crisis stronger than ever. The times beg for great leadership, and women are uniquely qualified to lead in these times. Do NOT allow COVID to stop your progress. Think of one action you can take to lift women up and create a new year of the woman now.