We’re in the middle of a “Shecession”– a major economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men. Surprised? It’s easy to see headlines about our current tight labor market – companies can’t seem to find and hire qualified employees fast enough– and assume these headlines apply to both men and women.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. More than 18 months since COVID first turned the labor market upside down, women continue to bear the brunt of pandemic-related job losses. Consider this: in September, women lost 26,000 jobs while men gained 220,000 positions. Women are currently at their lowest level of workforce participation in the last three decades.
What is the Shecession?
C Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, coined the term “Shecession” to describe a recession that affects women disproportionately. More than 2.3 million women in the US have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, widening the gender employment gap. The pandemic has been a “perfect storm” for women: a loss of outside-the-home childcare options, a disproportionate care burden placed on women, and a lack of employer flexibility.
Before COVID, research found that women did not opt out of the workforce at higher rates as men. McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, annually surveyed hundreds of companies to benchmark women’s progress in the US workplace. Every year through 2019, the average overall attrition rate for companies was slightly higher for men than women.
Now, one in four women in corporate America are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, according to McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s “2020 Women in the Workplace” report. Deloitte also found that nearly three in five women planned to leave their employers in two years or less, and they cited a lack of work-life balance as their top reason for wanting out.
This participation gap is not a “women’s issue.” Economists are warning that failing to get us back to work will affect the broader economy. Every 10% increase in women working is tied to a 5% increase in wages for all workers. If we do nothing, the global GDP in 2030 will be $1 trillion below where it would have been if the pandemic had affected men and women equally. If we take action now, $13 trillion could be added to global GDP.
Towards More Equitable Participation
New federal investments into the childcare industry, like paid parental leave, can make a difference. But companies don’t need to wait for the government to act. This is a “practice what you preach” moment to live your company’s values:
Listen first. It’s difficult to improve things if you don’t know where your business stands or what your employees need. Skip-level meetings and anonymous surveys are two opportunities to learn how employees feel about your current policies and what’s needed. For example, maybe employees need more flexible hours, like the ability to complete solo-work outside a traditional “9-to-5” day. Or, employees might benefit from a childcare stipend that could be used for both out-of-the-home daycare as well as in-home care from a family member.
Expand paid family leave. The US is the only industrialized country without a national, paid family leave policy. This leaves companies vulnerable to talent loss and puts undo pressure on new mothers. Paid family leave is good Women who take paid leave are 93% more likely to be in the workforce 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth than women who take no leave.If your company doesn’t have a paid family leave policy, now is the time to put one in writing. Equitable family leave policies include paid leave for new mothers and fathers and for a variety of circumstances, including adoption, pregnancy loss, and caring for sick family members. How your company designs its paid family leave program, including its inclusivity, makes an important statement about your company’s values. Consider adding flexible options, like the ability to take non-consecutive weeks or to take twice as many weeks at half pay, so employees can make the best choices for their families.
Continue to stay flexible. While many schools and daycares have reopened full-time this fall, parents still face a number of challenges. For example, strict sick policies mean that children showing symptoms of illness, like a runny nose or sore throat, may need to stay home until they have a negative COVID test. These policies are vital for keeping everyone healthy, but they put working parents in a difficult position. Companies can help by continuing to offer work from home flexibility. Understand that employees working from home may need to be flexible with their hours as well, putting in time in the early morning or late evening to juggle childcare.
How is your business addressing the challenges that women with children and caregiver commitments face? Share your approach and solutions in the comments below.