The think pieces began in March, and evidence mounted month after month. COVID-19 has brought about a — wait for it — unprecedented ‘workplace exodus’ for women, with no sign of relenting. In the United States, 2.2 million women are taking a leave of absence or permanently exiting the workforce. What happens if one in four women put off their careers due to the pandemic? Is anyone actually searching for solutions? In countries that successfully avoided the horrific second wave, is the pandemic gender gap closing?
Many have been asking the same questions. Amid an impending recession, the future looks bleak. Progress towards pay equity is stalling back decades, and companies themselves see balance sheets suffer when their executive teams have less heterogeneity. Economic recovery will be a slow and painful process. Even more so when female workers find themselves choosing between employment and other aspects of life. In glaringly clear language, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report calls women’s departures ‘an emergency for corporate America.’
When companies fail to retain women, junior female employees lose mentors, and fewer managers champion racial and gender equality. Company performance can improve by 50% when leadership approaches gender parity. Plus, women managers are far more likely to push for employee-friendly measures. In other words, if nothing is done to retain women, the economy’s prognosis will suffer immensely, and its impacts will be long-lasting.
Why is this happening?
The good news is that the solutions are obvious. Researchers know exactly why women are leaving their jobs. It’s the same reasons that have long made their careers suffer. Working parents balancing childcare with meager wages were already hanging by a thread before the pandemic hit, so when schools moved online, mothers were predictably forced out of employment. The phenomenon of the ‘second shift,’ where women with full-time jobs take on disproportionate amounts of household tasks and emotional labor, has been utterly maximized by COVID-19. Mothers who work remotely are burnt out, while those who cannot do their jobs from home face the heartbreaking possibility of exposing their families.
Women of all ages and ethnicities are more likely to hold part-time jobs or professions with lower wages. However, Black women (and women of color in general) bear the brunt of income inequality and workplace discrimination.
What’s more, women make up a significant majority of “essential workers.” Sectors like child care and health are disproportionately staffed by women of color. Unavoidably, the first step to addressing the ‘workplace exodus’ is controlling the virus itself; as long as kids have nowhere to go, no amount of incentives can help mothers get back to their careers. The economic recovery must be a feminist one, which takes unpaid and undervalued labor into account. This involves affordable childcare, availability of professional training, and proactive pursuit of wage equality. Women held essential roles during the pandemic and deserve better pay, which will further incentivize returning to the workforce.
Where do we go from here?
The bad news: we aren’t yet doing what needs to be done. In those few corners of the world where the pandemic’s largely over, women aren’t exactly returning to work in droves. New Zealand’s September quarter labor statistics show that 16.2% of women remain underemployed and 5.8% unemployed. The government’s economic recovery package has been described as “old school” because investment largely went to male-dominated fields of physical infrastructure and trades apprenticeships; meanwhile, female-majority sectors such as tourism, retail, and hospitality continue to suffer. Five months after UN Women called upon the G20 to create ‘gender-responsive’ recoveries and laid out policy recommendations, most countries are still struggling to catch up.
In an interview with Anne Helen Petersen, sociologist Jessica Calarco describes the conundrum succinctly: “Other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.” While the US’s lack of social welfare may be unique among developed countries, over-reliance on women’s invisible labor is present globally. Now that the pandemic has shown us the contemporary economic patriarchy’s worst-case scenario, denying the scope of the problem is no longer an option. It remains to be seen if national leaders will take up the cue.