The COVID-19 pandemic led to millions of Americans being forced out of the workforce, with women accounting for a disproportionate share of the job losses. As businesses and schools shut down throughout the country, the careers of many working women were put on hold to assume childcare and eldercare responsibilities. This “shecession,” as the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic has come to be known, has been tremendously damaging to women and their careers, and as the labor market shows signs of improvement, we must all take actions now to better support working women and get them back into the labor force.
I recently experienced the “shecession” phenomenon first-hand when an exceptional leader I know unexpectedly left her company. Despite being a key team member who brought great value to both the organization and her customer, this working mother was challenged by the demands of work, home schooling and managing a household. And although the options of a flexible schedule, the possibility of job sharing, or a temporary sabbatical were offered, this working mother ultimately opted to leave the workforce to prioritize her family.
And she is not alone. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women lost 11.3 million jobs in April 2020 alone, wiping out nearly a decade of job gains in just one month. And a recent McKinsey survey found that 1 in 3 working mothers considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers in order to care for their family members during the pandemic.
This working mother exodus has brought forward two real and very different problems. The first is the overall impact to the global economy. The Center for American Progress estimates that mothers leaving the labor force or reducing their hours could result in the loss of $64.5 billion in wages and economic activity.
The second problem created by this exodus is a major decrease in the financial value that working mothers will be able to command when they return to the workforce. Women already earn $0.82 for every dollar earned by white males thanks to the existing gender pay gap; as working mothers slowly return to the workforce, their break in employment will likely result in many rejoining at lower salary levels.
A recent report found that COVID-19 has already cost women more than $800 million in lost income, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that a one-year employment gap can result in a 39 percent decrease in annual earnings, a figure that increases the longer a woman is out of the workforce.
Most troubling is that less than 57 percent of women are currently participating in the labor force, the lowest rate since 1988. In just one year, the gains of an entire generation of women have been lost.
Reflecting on these facts can surely leave women feeling helpless, but seeing it first-hand, I became motivated to act. I wondered, what impact could I make when the problems facing working women are widespread and systematic? But then a colleague recently reminded me that when I want to create change, I need to start where I am.
I, myself, am a working mother. I made the conscious decision to demonstrate to both of my children, and my son especially, that they are both responsible for household tasks to be done, and that cooking, cleaning, and parenting are responsibilities to be shared equally, not shouldered by women alone.
I am also a sister and friend who knows many women who work inside and outside of the home, and I need to encourage them to reflect on when inequity is present in their household and to say something to address that imbalance.
I am also a manager with a large global team. I need to be more aware of the challenges that working mothers are facing and make sure they don’t lose ground when they need to prioritize their home lives over their work lives for a few days — or even weeks.
It is no secret that working women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, endangering decades of progress that women have made in the workforce. Much of that is because despite the strides that women have made towards equality both in society and in the workplace, women still shoulder an outsized share of the domestic responsibilities in many homes.
Not only do organizations need to do everything possible to support working women in achieving equality in the workplace, but we, as a society, must all strive to achieve meaningful change so that women don’t feel the pressure to choose between their careers or their families.