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How the Pandemic Has Affected Women’s Progress in the Workforce

 We have reached a critical crossroads that demands immediate global action.

Photo courtesy of Christina @ Wocintechchat.com via Unsplash

The year 2020 was marked by two seemingly incongruous events, although analysis has shown them to be inexorably linked. The first was the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action under the auspices of the United Nations; this is the most forward-thinking framework to date, set to advance global opportunities for women and girls. The second was the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating health, economic and societal consequences.

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The intersection of these events is pivotal.

Profound pandemic-related shocks struck globally. We’re all well aware of them: Over 5 million deaths, almost 300 million cases, the economic, social and personal upheaval. What most of us remain unaware of, however, are the dramatic effects on women. Last year was supposed to highlight the forward strides gained by women in the 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—empowerment for women and girls throughout the world to realize and exercise their freedom, choices and rights, although much still needs to be done. Instead, the pandemic has not only threatened but accelerated deleterious effects on those very freedoms, choices and rights.

The pandemic has underscored society’s dependency on women on the front lines and in the home while also exposing structural inequalities across every sphere, from health to the economy, security, workplace and social protection. Decades of progress for women and girls are under threat due to the fragile infrastructure that was put in place to support them in the first place. UN Women noted in late 2020 that most nations have failed to protect women and girls from the negative economic and social consequences of the pandemic. Likewise, the UN’s International Labour Organization has warned that due to the pandemic some of the modest progress that has been made on gender equality worldwide will disappear. Recovering from the pandemic must include rectifying long-standing inequalities and building a resilient world with women at the center of the recovery.

This is the first U.S. recession to cause substantially more job losses for women than men—almost 54 percent of the overall net job loss since the pandemic’s onset, according to McKinsey. And of the 12 million jobs lost by American women between February and April 2020, only half of those jobs had returned by September 2020. McKinsey has estimated that women’s jobs are almost twice as vulnerable to the pandemic as men’s. Women make up almost 40 percent of global employment yet now account for over 50 percent of job losses. One of the main reasons for this is that the pandemic has dramatically increased the burden of unpaid care—a burden that is disproportionately placed on women. Fractures in societal infrastructures, such as school and childcare center closings, have forced far too many women to default to the home and leave the workplace, no matter their economic status.

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Women’s employment numbers are falling faster than average. They have suffered a net loss of over 5 million jobs—almost 1 million more than men. And women of color have been affected by these job losses the most, according to the Center for American Progress. These populations also have suffered long-standing health disparities when compared to white women. All of this unequivocally threatens economic empowerment and heralds the dawn of a great downshift that has the enormous potential to erase a century of hard-fought progress for economic, gender and race equality. Right now, over a third of American women are seriously considering downshifting their careers.

Women are integral to overall economic success. McKinsey research has demonstrated that company profits and share performance are almost 50 percent higher when women hold leadership positions. Unfortunately, despite robust data showing how a diverse leadership team including women and people of color can drive better business outcomes, women still only represent a small number of C-suite positions. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform their competition. And additional research has shown that company profits and share performance are almost 50 percent higher when women are well-represented at the top.  

Analysis has shown the consistency of superior leadership skills for working women during pre-pandemic times and current times. In fact, analysis of present-time data shows even a high leadership effectiveness for women, suggesting that women tend to lead and perform better in a crisis compared to men.

And now that we find ourselves, not just in the U.S., but globally, at this critical crossroads of COVID and women struggling in the workforce, what do we do? How do we keep and support women in the workplace? How do we successfully navigate these crossroads and surmount any roadblocks we encounter? Although dire, the situation is neither completely desperate nor devoid of effective action. 

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As the U.S. and global economies recover amid elevated inflationary pressure, we must ensure that emerging markets and developing nations do the same. Access to economic and career opportunities, societal support and health care must be easily available and equal. We must ensure that women and girls are not further left behind due to global economic pressures. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to develop ways to protect women, their careers and their health. Companies must use a multipronged approach to supporting women in order to encourage them to lean into their careers and futures versus being circumstantially forced into downshifting. We must progress or face economic and societal failure. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated to all of us that the current infrastructure and policies are fragile, flawed, and unfair. It is more than time to enact change to ensure that women and girls— indeed, all of us—can continue to grow, evolve and thrive

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