COVID-19 has altered the lives of most Americans, but changes at home and work have affected working women significantly, particularly working women of color. Even before COVID, women earned less, saved less, had less access to financial services and products, and had non-linear career trajectories. Furthermore, women lived longer than men. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women's life expectancy is to reach 87.3 years by 2060, compared with 83.9 years for men (Medina, Sabo, and Vespa 2020). Since COVID-19, women face additional disproportional impacts from the pandemic-induced recession. The pandemic’s effect on women has been termed a “she-cession,” by C. Nicole Mason, a women’s policy researcher and economist, to describe the disproportionate impacts the pandemic has had on working women’s careers (Andrews 2020).
Our country has undergone an initial mass exodus of more than 20 million women from the workforce at the beginning of the pandemic (Chiappa 2021). While many women eventually returned to work, a huge number left their careers to fill ongoing gaps in childcare and to help with their children’s remote learning. January’s 2021 jobs reports showed that 2.5 million women ultimately exited the workforce compared to 1.8 million men (Rogers 2021). This imbalance raises several questions:
- Whose professional time do we value most?
- Who is dispensable?
- How can employers support and retain women in the workplace?
This fact sheet explores answers to these questions by highlighting some of the growing inequities of working women, especially after the onset of COVID-19. It also presents actionable solutions where employers can start designing their working environments and adjusting employee policies to support women proactively and tangibly in the workplace. “Equality for women is progress for all” (Unicef 2014).
Gender Inequalities Pre-Covid
“The pandemic, by itself, isn’t hurting women’s careers. It is merely highlighting—in bright fluorescent yellow marker—the existing inequities in the workplace and society that already created deep-seated disparities between men and women, from the gender pay gap to the lack of women in executive leadership roles.”
—Shirley Leung, Boston Globe, 2020
The pandemic did not create new gender inequalities in the workforce, but it is noteworthy that it did substantially worsen existing inequalities. The most prevailing inequalities for women are unequal pay, sexual harassment, racism, and greater inequities in the promotion and raise negotiation practices compared to their male counterparts (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission n.d.). Women are also often overrepresented in certain sectors such as health, social services, and education. They are underrepresented in other sectors such as professional, scientific, financial, and technical services. Women also face barriers in advancing into leadership roles, despite being more educated than men on average and constituting nearly half of the workforce (Wilson 2019).
2020 Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies
Education: Women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men since 1982, attained more master’s degrees than men since 1987, and received more doctorate degrees than men since 2006 (NCES 2021).
Earnings: Women still earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns (Morad 2021). As a result, the typical lower-earning female is forced to cut back on work for caregiving responsibilities (Simons 2020). Earning inequalities are further exacerbated in non-heterosexual female couples (File 2021).
Labor force: Women’s labor force participation peaked in 2000 with almost 60% of women participating in the labor force but has been in decline ever since (Fry 2017).
Pre-COVID labor force: There are 76.8 million women who are 16 and older, which represents 47% of the total labor force, compared to 53% of men in the same age group (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020).
Remote learning: Eighty percent of working mothers took the lead on remote learning versus 31% of working fathers, and 40% of working parents have quit or reduced their work hours since the pandemic began (Pelta 2020).
Automation: Women are 58% more likely than men to lose their jobs because women tend to work in the automating sectors of the workforce (Holder 2019).
Gender Equality Loses Ground: COVID’s Impact on Women and Work
We are losing some of our most accomplished female workers and leaders to caregiving and educational duties, forcing gender equality backward the equivalent of ten years (Taub 2020). Businesses and institutions need to start taking a hard look at changes they can make now to help women stay employed and to welcome them back into the workforce. Employers need to assess their company policies and community needs and rethink how to configure their work environment to equitably accommodate and support women.
Employers Can Respond, Engage, and Develop
- Support federal and state governments to align programs and policies that support a universal early childhood education (ECE) system. The goal is to develop an ECE system that is coordinated, sufficient in scope, accessible, uniform in quality, and focused on the development of young children.
- Partner with educators to redefine what education looks like for remote learning, so families have more family time in the evenings rather than doing schoolwork.
- Provide resources such as the technology and applications needed to connect parents and guardians with at-home care providers for young children and older adults in the community.
- Engage with programs that bring new teachers into the field of early childhood education. Support the creation of childcare programs, increases in early educator compensation, and the redevelopment of early learning centers into neighborhood resource hubs to help local families with young children and caregiving responsibilities (Corbett 2020).
Make the Workplace Better
- Allow flexible workplans.
- Switch from email to simpler message-based communications platforms (such as Slack, Teams, GroupMe, etc.) with a messenger/chat feature.
- Schedule work meetings in predictable chunks of the day or the month.
- Redefine what constitutes a full workday/workweek and how employee productivity is evaluated.
- Move away from any billable hour compensation schemes.
- Restructure work from an office-centric design to the hybrid/remote working environments which are currently in demand.
- Redefine the “when,” “where,” and “how” of work to design it around human behavior rather than designing it around a location.
- Institute equitable changes for all, share resources, and support federal and local subsidies that impact workers equitably across the board rather than using a piecemeal approach of going from employer to employer.
- Ensure that bias against caregivers is not impacting the performance evaluations of employees who are caregivers.
- Develop employee retention programs that evaluate not just how employees work, but also what sort of work they are asked to perform, to keep work meaningful and worthwhile (Purtill 2020).
Think Boldly of the Future and Reset the Workplace for Women
Research by McKinsey and Company shows that company profits and employee performance can be 50% higher at workplaces where women are well represented at the top. Let COVID-19 be the reset button to rewrite the workplace rules and forge a more equitable and productive work environment (Dixon-Fyle 2020).
“The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared in 2014 for International Women’s Day. “Empowered women lift up society as a whole: countries with more gender equality have better economic growth; peace agreements that include women are more durable; and [governments] with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination, and child support” (United Nations 2014).
- Make flexibility the new normal and recognize that ‘in-person meetings’ are important, but ‘virtual facetime’ is effective, efficient, and expanding in use and value. The pandemic showed us how to make connections and build culture virtually. The in-person, 9-to-5 work structure is counterproductive. Let employees choose how often they want to physically come in the office—the impact is more important than in-person office time. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that one out of three women leave companies that are not flexible enough to support adequate work-life balance. Even before the pandemic, millennial and Generation Z workforces wanted more control over their work schedule, more flexibility in their workplaces, and a more responsive working environment (Loubier 2017).
- Adjust expectations, rethink performance reviews. Reevaluate how performance reviews are administered and monitored to determine if there is potential bias against employees with caregiving responsibilities. This adjustment can reduce burnout, anxiety, and increase productivity. Factor in caregiving status in talent evaluations, including promotion review that weighs long-term performance trends and the potential for increased performance in the future (Social Finance, Inc. 2020).
- Acknowledge that the childcare system is broken and that employers must be part of the solution. Companies and organizations need to invest in childcare so working mothers do not have to choose between their families or their careers. These investments can include employer childcare subsidies and learning centers that accommodate employee school-age children with remote learning capacity. Educate the community: childcare is a basic infrastructure need that is required and needs to be maintained for working families (Modestino 2021).
- Do not penalize women who left the workforce or reduced their hours due to COVID-19. Women should return to the workforce with confidence. Savvy employers will recognize how the pandemic set back female employees and should be inventive and trendsetting in how to woo them back.
- Honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mantra: “This child has two parents.” According to Boston Consulting, like women, men have had to double their childcare and educational duties to thirty-seven hours per week. Women still bear the bigger burden at home, but the bilateral parenting approach should become a standard going forward by employers (Leung 2020).
Remote Work Can Both Help and Hurt Opportunities for Advancement
Remote work helps:
- remove the trailing spouse effect. Being allowed to work from any geographical location fills talent pools with more women who, if married, are less likely than married men to relocate for their jobs (Roy 2020).
- allow employers to hire top talent. Hiring from all over the state, (country, or world,) builds more dynamic and diverse remote working units.
- mitigate height bias. Height induces earning potential and career success. Workers six feet tall can expect to earn roughly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than a colleague 7 inches shorter. Consider this correlation with regards to the average American woman’s height being 5 feet 4 inches tall to a man’s average being 5 feet 9 inches. (Dittmann 2004)
- provide an option for women who want to work from home. Research finds 98% of women want to work from home at least once a week and 76% want their companies to offer more flexible scheduling. The Pew Research Center reports that the lack of workplace flexibility keeps 51% of working mothers from advancing their careers versus 16% of working fathers (Loubier 2020).
- reduce commute time, increase productivity, support work-life balance goals by proactive policy changes (Mangan 2021).
Remote work hurts:
- by making women more invisible. Remote work leads to even fewer advancement opportunities for women since managers often assign projects to those they can see and have frequent contact with.
- by allowing inequitable behavior to be ignored. It is difficult to observe or correct inequitable practices when working remotely. Ensuring everyone’s voice is heard during a video call can be different from ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and respected in an in-person setting.
Remote work solutions include:
- artificial intelligence (AI). AI platforms can ensure human capital management decisions made across an entire organization are equitable, transparent, data-driven, and free of bias—especially pay, performance, and promotion decisions. This removes the ambiguities and biases that are prevalent. Plus, AI replaces informal or relationship-based promotion opportunities with objective, data-driven decision-making (Roy 2020).
- more flexibility. Consider implementing a flexible schedule, flexible daily start and end times, time-banking, and split shifts, with larger breaks in between to help add some much-needed equilibrium to workers’ work-life balance.
- remote communications. Increase text-based collaboration tools for quick communication over email (e.g., Slack, Teams, GroupMe); use video conferencing platforms; use cloud-based file storage and sharing (e.g., Drop Box, OneDrive); and build learning repositories that are remote, searchable, self-serve learning systems that enable employees.
- additional hardware. Allow additional monitors, keyboards, and office equipment to support a home office.
- re-image your hiring process and preferred qualifications. Put tech positions and the retraining of existing workers at the forefront.
- keep leadership adaptive. As employees adjust to new ways of working, leaders also must adapt if they want to achieve success with a remote workforce.
- shift away from the office-centric design toward hybrid/remote working environments. Current research shows that employees will work better, remain at their organizations longer, and stay healthier if they are placed at the center of work designs (Cambon 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges and inequities that women face in the workforce. Advancing gender equity necessitates a focus on how work is changing. Change is constant and ignoring the inequalities is hampering progress for all. Use the data, resources, and workforce restructuring suggestions in this factsheet for actionable solutions to design and adapt work environments and employee policies to support women proactively and quantifiably in the workplace.
Andrews, Audrey. 2020. “The Coronavirus Recession Is a ‘She-cession.’” Press Hits, Institute for Women’s Policy Research. May 15, 2020.
Cambon, Alexia. 2021. “The Problem Isn’t Remote Working—It’s Clinging to Office-Based Practices.” The Guardian. June 21, 2021.
Chiappa, Claudia. 2021. “The Pandemic Forced Millions of Women Out of the Workforce—Many Have Not Returned.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. November 8, 2021.
Corbett, Holly. 2020. “How to Keep Women in the Workforce During the Pandemic.” Forbes. September 28, 2020.
Dittmann, M., 2004. “Standing Tall Pays Off, Study Finds.” American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology, Volume 35, Number 7, July/August 2004.
Dixon-Fyle, Sundiatu, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, and Sara Prince. 2020. “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters.” McKinsey & Co. March 19, 2020.
EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). n.d. EEOC Women's Work Group Report. Federal Sector Reports. Accessed January 10, 2022.
File, Thom, and Joey Marshall. 2021. “Household Pulse Survey Shows LGBT Adults More Likely to Report Living in Households with Food and Economic Insecurity Than Non-LGBT Respondents.” America Counts: Stories Behind the Numbers, United States Census Bureau. August 11, 2021.
Fry, Richard, and Rene Stepler. 2017. “Women May Never Make Up Half of the U.S. Workforce.” Pew Research Center. January 31, 2017.
Holder, Sarah. 2019. “As AI Takes Over Jobs, Women Workers May Have the Most to Lose.” Bloomberg CityLab. March 13, 2019.
Leung, Shirley. 2020. “Five Ways the Pandemic Can Ultimately Make the Workplace Better for Women.” Boston Globe, November 6, 2020.
Loubier, Andrea. 2017. “How Working Remotely is Helping Women Close the Gender Gap in Tech.” Forbes. March 13, 2017.
Mangan, Joanne. 2021. “Remote Working Can Be a Game-changer for Gender Equality.” Think Business, Bank of Ireland. March 8, 2021.
Medina, Lauren, Shannon Sabo, and Johathan Vespa. 2020. Living Longer: Historical and Projected Life Expectancy in the United States, 1960 to 2060. Washington D.C., U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. PDF.
Modestino, Alicia Sasser, Jamie J. Ladge, Addie Swartz, and Alisa Lincoln. 2021. “Childcare is a Business Issue.” Harvard Business Review. April 29, 2021.
Morad, Renee. 2021. “It’s 2021 and Women STILL Make 82 Cents for Every Dollar Earned by a Man,” MSNBC (website). March 23, 2021.
NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). 2021. Degrees Conferred by Degree-Granting Institutions, by Level of Degree and Sex of Student: Selected Years, 1869–70 through 2021–22. Washington D.C., U.S. Department of Education.
Pelta, Rachel. 2020. “FlexJobs Survey Shows Need for Flexibility, Support for Working Parents,” Flexjobs. September 15, 2020.
Purtill, Corinne. “Companies Say They’re Committed to Retaining Women. Now COVID-19 is Torpedoing Female Employment, What Steps Should Firms Take to Help?” BBC. October 18, 2020.
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Roy, Katica. 2020. “Will the Shift to Remote Work Hurt or Help Gender Equity?” Katicaroy.com (website). Updated December 14, 2020.
Simons, Sasha-Ann. 2020. “More Couples are Embracing Female Breadwinners, Despite Decades-Old Stigma.” WAMU 88.5, American University Radio (website). February 17, 2020.
Social Finance, Inc. 2020. Preventing and Managing Employee Burnout. Rapid Response Network—a joint initiative between the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) and Social Finance, Inc. PDF.
Taub, Amanda. 2020. “Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace.” The New York Times (website). September 26, 2020.
TIME’S Up Foundation and Tend Lab. 2021. Leader’s Guide to Creating a Culture of Care. Washington, D.C., TIME’S UP Foundation.
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Wilson, Julie. 2019. “5 Top Issues Fueling Gender Inequality in the Workplace.” As You Sow (blog). February 25, 2019.