Working Women in Crisis

The pandemic creates employment gaps for women.

During the winter surge of COVID-19, I presented our department’s annual results to my C-suite leaders. After showing that the team exceeded our goals, I closed the videoconference and sprinted to my screaming baby.

On many occasions, I compiled and analyzed data, wrote reports, posted content, and attended meetings while nursing an infant and attempting to help a toddler navigate an online game.

At Challenger, Gray & Christmas, I was one of the privileged ones who could continue to work from home, had a partner who could do the same, and intermittently had grandparents’ help. My employer showed flexibility and empathy. Yet, I often felt I was living in two realities and was never fully present in either my professional or my parental roles.

This mental whiplash was exhausting, not to mention the emotional labor of dealing with a global pandemic, the fight for racial justice, the threat to democracy. It is more than enough to drive people out of their jobs and into caregiving roles. That burden has fallen predominantly on women, particularly women of color.

At the height of the pandemic, nearly
3 million fewer women were employed than prepandemic. Over half a million fewer Black women over the age of 20 were working in March 2021 than twelve months earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor market participation rate for Latinx women fell from 62.2 percent pre-pandemic to 57.8 percent in May 2021, compared to 61.6 percent for all worker groups in May 2021. The pandemic eliminated jobs in industries that employed primarily women, especially women of color—hospitality, health care, retail, education.

Women leaders were not spared. According to a Challenger analysis, the rate of newly appointed women CEOs hit a setback in the first quarter of 2021. Just under 18 percent of new CEOs were women, compared to 22.7 percent of new CEOs overall in 2020. Women’s gains in other leadership roles stalled at less than 30 percent in 2020 as well, according to a study by Catalyst. This drain of female talent and halt of female leadership are a disaster for the workplace.

Now that there is light at the end of this tunnel, how do we repair?

Certainly, employers can be part of the solution. Reestablishing diverse talent in the labor market will require them to create equitable compensation packages, flexibility, mentorship programs, and leadership opportunities. Employers can ensure their hiring practices do not discount women applicants, especially as the pandemic creates employment gaps for millions.

A necessary benefit is mental-health care. In a Challenger survey conducted in March, 73 percent of companies are addressing employees’ mental health needs, with 23 percent taking it on a case-by-case basis.

Child care, an issue brought to stark relief during the pandemic, is an attractive benefit for many women. Yet, in the same Challenger survey, just 12.5 percent of companies reported offering child-care assistance, down from 16.7 percent in a similar survey conducted by Challenger in 2018.

It is crucial, as we begin recovering from the pandemic, that women’s talent is prioritized. DW


By Colleen Blumenfeld

Colleen Madden Blumenfeld is a writer and researcher living in Chicago with her husband and two children. She is director of public relations and research for global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

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