Just When Things Were Looking Up.

In February 2020, working women made up over half of the U.S. nonfarm workforce, for the first time ever.

Then March arrived and the world met COVID-19.

Last December, 140,000 net U.S. jobs were lost. Of these, 100 percent belonged to women. One. Hundred. Percent. Since the pandemic began, 2.1 million women have exited the workforce completely and are not planning to look for another job.

More women than men work in the sectors hardest hit by COVID restrictions—service industries, retail, tourism. Globally, an estimated 40 percent (510 million) of women work in these jobs, and most of them (about 54 percent in the U.S.) aren’t a good fit for remote working.

But even those women lucky enough to be able to work from home are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

COVID Affects Women at Work More Than Men. Why?

A global Deloitte study found that nearly 82 percent of women feel their lives have been negatively disrupted by the pandemic. Of these, almost 70 percent think it will hinder their career progression.

One of the major stressors is the additional unpaid work—shopping, cooking, housework caregiving to children and elderly parents etc.—that women are performing now.

According to a report from Boston Consulting Group, American parents have almost doubled the time spent on household tasks and education, jumping from 30 to 59 hours a week. But women are doing 75 percent of that work. That’s a real burden when both parents are trying to keep their careers on track.

Interestingly, 64 percent of men say that the amount of unpaid work and care has increased during the pandemic, compared to a lower 55 percent of women. This disparity is probably due to men observing and participating in work that they usually do not.

One in four women are thinking about slowing their career or leaving the workforce entirely, particularly mothers, Black women, and senior-level women. In fact, three in four Black women are considering downshifting or exiting their careers.

The excellent Women in the Workplace Report, produced annually by McKinsey & Company and Lean In, found that the main reasons women are considering leaving the workforce are:

  • Lack of flexibility at work
  • Feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, i.e., “always on”
  • Housework and caregiving burdens due to Covid-19
  • Worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic
  • Discomfort sharing the challenges they are facing with teammates or managers
  • Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work
  • Feeling unable to bring their whole self to work

Studies and experts suggest the pandemic could rewind gender equality as much as 50 years.

Hey Guys—Think This Doesn’t Affect You? Think Again.

The world needs women in the workplace.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that if we address gender disparity in the workplace, we’ll see an increase of $13 trillion in the global GDP in 2030. If we fail to act, we can expect global GDP to be $1 trillion lower than it would be if women’s unemployment rates matched those of men.

Women Kick Ass.

“Women are working more, men are understanding their value as caregivers, women are primary breadwinners—I mean, we could go on and on and on. Things are different. So we can’t keep operating like everything is the same, and that’s what many of us have done. And I think it’s up to us to change the conversation.”   — Michelle Obama

McKinsey research discovered that the most gender diverse companies—those in the top quartile—are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profits compared to the least diverse quartile. The most diverse companies will also be in the best position to get back on track post-COVID, with access to a broader talent base and greater mix of skillsets and viewpoints.

S&P Global have found that companies with female CFOs enjoy better stock price performance and increased profitability. Sorry fellas.

So, What’s the Good News?

While there’s certainly plenty to be concerned about for women in the workplace, a few things have improved.

We’ve been forced into a meritocracy. Having employees spread out geographically has weakened the “old boy’s network” that could shut women out, particularly at senior levels. As business gets done on the phone and over Zoom, women miss fewer opportunities that are born on the golf course, around the water cooler, or over beers after work. The informal conversations that happened in these situations no longer drive the company. Interactions are purposeful and meaningful, levelling the playing field and minimizing cliques.

Being more used to handling the lion’s share of household and childcare work, women multitask effectively—a particularly essential skill during the pandemic.

Companies are also recognizing that employees have lives outside of the office. As Martina L. Cheung, President of S&P Global Market Intelligence says:

“I am hopeful that our workforce, especially women, will experience many of the upsides to the pandemic. As employees work from home, children and family members have become regular fixtures in the background of online meetings.

Their increased visibility can lead to better communication about the burden of family care, more expansive family-leave policies and reduced stigma around taking such leave. Importantly, it could also lead to greater flexibility around work schedules and work locations, and in turn creating more options for employees who are juggling — admirably — to do it all.”

What’s Next?

We’re at an inflection point. The decisions made by corporate America today will reverberate for decades to come.

There are some good signs already. Several large employers such as Salesforce, Etsy, Zoom, Uber, Pinterest, and PepsiCo have signed a pledge to help working parents thrive in the workplace.

Companies are realizing that workplace flexibility means more than letting employees work from home every now and then. Many are doing more than paying lip service to their employee’s mental health, happiness, and well-being. The pandemic has brought many companies closer together as employees get a daily peek into their colleague’s personal lives (and bedrooms/basement offices/kitchen tables).

To avoid losing the modest gains that we’ve made in the last decades, employers will need to see women workers as “whole people,” and up the ante with improved childcare support and educational assistance to allow retraining. “Returnships” could encourage skilled women to reenter the workforce after a break.

When women feel supported, respected, and on equal footing, they are less likely to downshift or leave their positions. That’s good for women, good for business, and it’s good for everyone.

Maria Perrin is Chief Growth Officer for HMS, where she is responsible for the company’s corporate strategy, marketing, government relations, business development, and oversight of the company’s more than 500 contracts with government and commercial healthcare organizations. She has transformed HMS’ brand and furthered its industry impact through numerous thought leadership and innovation initiatives.