The Pandemic is Hitting Women Hard. Here's How to Help Them.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, vaccine distribution stalls in many states, and schools toggle between in-person and remote learning (seemingly from week to week), one group is feeling the impact most intensely: Women.

Among the most disheartening facts about 2020 is the disproportionate effect it had on women’s employment. At the beginning of last year, women were pretty much on equal ground with men, holding 50.03% of jobs, according to the Labor Department. Fast-forward to the end of 2020 and women were down 5.4 million jobs, nearly 1 million more than their male peers. In December alone, employers cut 140,000 jobs. But here’s the really sad news: women accounted for all of that, losing 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000.

A parallel development is taking place among women who haven’t lost their jobs, but rather the support networks—in-person school, child care—needed to do them. A closer look at these women shows that because of the disruption of the pandemic, one in four are considering reducing their work hours, moving to part-time, taking a leave of absence, or simply dropping out of the workforce altogether, according to a study published by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, the gender advocacy group co-founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.

The cumulative effect is one of disbelief and just plain outrage. Says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research: “It’s like the pandemic caused us all to reach a breaking point and allowed women to finally say ‘Enough is enough. Something has to change.’”

That sentiment was captured recently in a full-page ad in the New York Times in the form of a letter to President Biden. Penned by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, it was signed by more than 50 people, including MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp and celebrities such as Charlize Theron, Eva Longoria and Gabrielle Union. The letter calls on the President to create what’s called a “Marshall Plan for Moms” similar to the 1948 plan that saw the U.S. commit more than $15 billion to help rebuild Europe after World War II. This current version asks the President to unlock federal money and support policies such as paid family leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity to help working moms suffering the most during the pandemic. It also includes a proposal to give a monthly, means-tested $2,400 monthly payment to moms.

“We shut down schools and we shut down daycare. Who’s going to be the one to stay home?” asks Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “If we’re talking a two-parent home, the dad is likely making more so the mom is going to bear the greater burden when it comes to childcare and the household.”

“I feel like I’ve run a marathon.”

Without support networks in place, housekeeping, cooking, and caring for children—and now overseeing their education—is falling squarely on working women and they’re exhausted.

“By the time I get my kids to sleep at night I feel like I’ve run a marathon between my job responsibilities and making sure they’re on their online classes,” says a vice president at a large East coast bank who asked not to be named. “And then I have to do the same thing the next day. There’s no escape.”

In the McKinsey and Lean In study, twice as many working moms worried about their job performance because they were also responsible for taking care of their kids. Zoom and Team calls may make it easier to stay in touch with colleagues and managers, but they also make it harder to mask the complications that come from a home that doubles as an office.

Being unemployed, or choosing to cut back or exit the workforce completely, has both short and long-term financial and professional implications for women. For starters, jobs are often tied to healthcare benefits and retirement savings vehicles. When the job goes, so too do these other benefits. Lower-paid women who are unemployed will often take the first opportunity that comes along—even if the pay is low.

“That often sets them up for a lifetime of earning less,” says Tucker from the NWLC. “That’s hard to make up and that’s why I believe we’re going to see a widening of the gender pay gap going forward.”

But it’s not just women who are affected. Companies and the U.S. economy overall are going to suffer if women continue to leave the workforce. When both men and women are participating in the labor market in robust numbers, GDP rises and the cost of labor decreases. That’s good for business. What’s not good is the talent drain that’s happening now as women burn out and have to choose their families over their careers.

“We’re in a knowledge-based economy and there isn’t a company out there that can afford to leave women’s brains on the sidelines,” says Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, an employee experience company. The economic recovery that’s being forecast as vaccines roll out and we get the pandemic under control could be a lot less rosy if dual-income families are replaced with a single earner.

What the pandemic has uncovered in a stark way is a workplace template that was never created to accommodate working mothers in the first place. Now that this realization is out in the open, it’s the collective responsibility of both the public and private sectors to fix it.

“We have a systemic problem here, not an individual problem that has to be figured out by working moms,” says Mason. “Our 1950s workplace model is clearly not working. We need big, bold solutions and the Marshall Plan is a step in the right direction.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune, Fortune.com, CNBC.com and in a variety of other print magazines.

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