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A Post-Pandemic Recovery Playbook for Women  – by Cathy Light

As vaccines roll out, we turn our attention toward economic recovery. The traditional stimulus measures of the past, dominated by investment in infrastructure and construction, will not be effective in our post-pandemic world. Those sectors are male-majority employers, and COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in one month (September 2020), more than 1 million Americans over the age of 20 left the U.S. workforce. Roughly 80% – over 865,000 of them – were women. There are now nearly 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force than there were in February 2020 before the pandemic. In October 2020, the U.S. retail trade sector gained 103,700 jobs. Women accounted for only 11.4% of those gains, despite making up 48.4% of the retail trade workforce. We must do better.
Childcare and eldercare responsibilities and the school crises impacted women’s ability to work. Women also tend to work in industries hardest hit by pandemic restrictions (Travel and Tourism, Retail, Education, Service).

This exodus of women leaving the workforce is not just a crisis for gender equality; it’s a crisis for our economy. The effects of women leaving the labor force or reducing their hours to part-time amounts to an estimated $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity.

As the Center for American Progress reports, there will be a macroeconomic impact from women scaling back their employment. “Businesses and the overall economy are already struggling with decreased demand due to the pandemic, and significant hits to families’ incomes will only exacerbate this problem. … If a mother’s drop in earnings means tightening spending for nonessentials such as dining out or leisure activities, then the sectors of the economy that COVID-19 has already hit hardest will experience additional prolonged pain.”

Advancing women’s equality can add between $12 and $28 trillion to the global economy. Women’s earnings can contribute to an economic resurgence in hard-hit industries like service and travel. Companies risk losing women in leadership, undoing years of progress, and weakening innovation and enterprise. Our post-pandemic economic recovery needs a new playbook.

We Have Failed Women

Academics who studied the economic aftermath of the Ebola crisis in 2014, Zika in 2015–2016, and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu found that the episodes all had severe, long-lasting effects on gender equality and the economy.

Additionally, school closures to thwart the spread of Ebola in West Africa resulted in the loss of one year of human capital accumulation. For young African women already facing diminished human capital, this loss was especially significant. Furthermore, without the protection of time spent in school, young women became more vulnerable to early pregnancy, violence, and sexual abuse. It also fell on women to carry the responsibility of childcare during this time, as is the current reality in North America.

 “Everybody’s income was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa,” says Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.”

School closures and shelter in place orders have similar effects during COVID-19, with domestic violence reports rising, in some areas doubling. Couple that with women losing or being forced to relinquish their jobs and becoming financially dependent on partners, and you have a recipe for gender equality regression.

Even simpler and more subtle, fewer women working means fewer little girls seeing working women as role models. This will impact the female talent pipeline, the aftermath of which will be felt for decades unless we actively recruit women back into the workforce and reimagine our economic stimulus efforts.   

Gender Equality is Key to Economic Recovery

Part of the problem is the antiquated view of what economic recovery entails.

The prevailing view of economic recovery is that it must reverse the fall in the gross domestic product (GDP) caused by the pandemic response. But GDP is a flawed biomarker of a country’s well-being that amplifies gender inequality, often ignoring or undervaluing a woman’s role in society. For example, the GDP does not recognize the long-term impact on the economy of childbearing and child-rearing – both influential factors of health and well-being and adult productivity.

“Likewise, the manufacture of infant formula contributes to GDP, but breastfeeding, which has major, quantifiable benefits on the health of mothers and babies, does not; and perversely, women who stop work to breastfeed incur a financial penalty. A single metric incorporating the negative impacts of products and services on population health, and the positive impacts of healthy pregnancies and childcare, would be a better biomarker of a country’s well-being than GDP and a better metric on which to base post-COVID recovery.”

Economies that will be most resilient in the future are those with healthy populations that can withstand future outbreaks. That means investing in maternal and child health, and it means investing in women.

Investing in Women is Investing in a Stronger Economy

The Center for American Progress states, “Without both immediate and long-term action to shore up the childcare infrastructure and establish more progressive work-family policies, the United States cannot achieve continued economic growth nor protect and advance gender equity.”

Businesses have an active role to play in this recovery. To begin, organizations need to stop the exodus of women leaving. Policies and programming that support men as fathers and women as mothers with sufficient paternity and maternity leave help. “As more men experience the process of taking leave – securing manager approval, creating coverage plans, and navigating re-entry after several weeks away – company processes will improve for everyone, and more managers will be more empathetic to the needs of expectant parents,” says Carolyn Tastad, Group President, North America, P&G.

Subsidizing childcare or allowing for paid pandemic relief days are excellent ways to show support to all employees and are especially beneficial to working mothers. Minimizing meetings, examining and balancing workloads, and sharing position responsibilities all help to avoid burnout for all employees and are important to attracting and retaining working mothers.

Evaluate how your company supports and encourages the talent pipeline. Do you have mentorship, intern, and educational opportunities that entice, inspire, and support young women or women just starting their careers? Investing in your talent pipeline builds confidence in up-and-comers and brand loyalty.

Most important of all is creating a corporate culture where women are valued and their contributions recognized and appropriately rewarded. That translates into having women in roles of authority and sitting in board seats. Tokenism diminishes value. Women need to see that real career advancement is possible and that hiring policies seek out various qualified candidates, including women – from entry-level to the C-Suite.

Don’t Push Women off the Glass Cliff

Many countries demonstrating the best COVID-19 responses are led by female leaders – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Tsai Ing-wen, President of the Republic of China, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, to name a few. Average women (those not in charge of countries) have stepped up by stepping back during COVID-19, taking on extra caregiver and home school responsibilities.

Historically, in times of crisis, women have been called upon to rise and lead and take on more responsibility. Sadly, when times return to calm, men resume their roles, and women are left behind. Let’s not let that happen again. We need to get women back to work.

Most corporate leaders believe they are already addressing gender parity. But conscious and unconscious bias gets in the way; the result – a blind spot. It’s time we open our eyes and keep them open.

Business is not separate from society. Working in cooperation with governments and civil society is fundamental to supporting gender parity. Together, we can change the rules of the game and create a new, improved recovery playbook.

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