By Stephanie M.H. Moore, Indiana University
American women have made strides in the workplace over the past half-century in terms of earnings, employment and careers – in no small part thanks to the efforts of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The COVID-19 pandemic risks undoing many of these gains in a matter of months. Without concrete action, I believe a generation of women may never fully recover.
One group of women who are at particular risk are those in professional fields. While fortunate enough to have quality jobs, many are being forced by the increased demands of child care to reduce working hours – or to stop working altogether. Mothers have always handled more of a household's child care than fathers have, but it has become further lopsided since lockdowns began earlier this year.
As a result, more than one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely, according to a study of 317 companies released Sept. 30. And the latest jobs report out on Oct. 2 found that women's participation rate in the labor market continues to fall faster than for men.
With schools across the country struggling to open classrooms for in-person learning, many women will have little choice but to either continue juggling the needs of their children with the demands of their jobs or give up on the latter. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more it threatens to cause permanent damage to women's ability to advance in their careers and earn more income.
However, this outcome is not inevitable. As an expert in business ethics, I believe companies have the ability – and duty – to prevent many of these negative outcomes.
Child care responsibilities
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all working women.
Since April, for example, women – especially Black women – have lost jobs at much higher rates than men, in large part because they tend to hold jobs in sectors that have been most devastated by the pandemic, such as service, travel and retail.
At the same time, women do a majority of the low-paid essential jobs. Women make up 77% of health care workers, 77% of teachers, 94% of child care workers and 70% of cashiers – jobs that tend to be underpaid and undervalued and also put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
But it's professional women, such as lawyers, analysts, engineers and other executives, who have the most to lose because of the great advances they've made in their careers compared with women a generation ago – even if there's still a ways to go to achieve gender equality.
Since women are generally responsible for organizing child care for their families, the demands on their time have increased significantly during the pandemic. A study looking at the period of time prior to the first widespread U.S. outbreak in February through the first peak in April showed that mothers with young children had reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers, exacerbating the gender gap in work hours by 20% to 50%.
Another study, which examined data from the Census Household Pulse survey in late April and early May, found that over 80% of U.S. adults who were not working because they had to care for their children not in school or daycare were women.
And with the school year currently in full swing, women continue to cite child care at a much higher rate than men do as a reason that they are not able to work. Management consultancy Boston Consulting Group found women are spending 15 more hours a week on domestic labor during the pandemic than men. And Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on helping companies better serve women, reported that women are twice as likely as men to be responsible for homeschooling.
We know that part of the reason for all of this is because of workplace norms and societal gender biases. Some of it, however, has to do with what's most practical for a family. If someone needs to reduce hours, families will choose the person who makes less – and usually, that is the woman. And since women also tend to work fewer hours and are more likely to work part-time, their jobs are the lower priority when there is a disruption.
But it's not just mothers. Women without children are also more likely to be in caregiving roles, even more so during the pandemic. Two-thirds of caregivers in the U.S. are women, meaning they provide daily or regular support to children, adults or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities – and are also at risk of losing job-related ground due to stress and burnout.
What companies can do
Fortunately, companies can do a lot to soften the impact and offset disparities altogether.
It begins with communication. The first thing companies should do is survey their employees to determine what they need. The results can guide the types of policies that could best address workers' unique concerns and situations.
Whatever management changes are made, it's imperative that businesses communicate clearly and often with all employees and set appropriate and reasonable workloads. Given the increased strains workers are under, it's also very helpful to organize and distribute mental health resources and encourage employees to use them.
Increased flexibility is something all women need right now. Women taking care of young children especially need more flexibility to help them juggle competing demands on their time.
Flexible work can mean many things, such as allowing employees to continue working from home even after others return to the office, helping them balance hours and scheduling key meetings and other duties at particular times. For example, many parents are driving their children to school to avoid the bus, so companies can help by simply not scheduling important meetings at common pickup and drop-off times. In my own department, some shared their personal calendars with management to help with this kind of scheduling.
Other families may have their children home all the time because of online school or child care issues, so recording meetings and events for people who cannot attend – or who have disruptions – will ensure everyone has access to important information.
But it's not just about providing flexibility to women. Men need flexibility too so they can handle more of the child care duties – including after having a baby – allowing women to spend more time doing their professional jobs. Some men have been reporting that they do not have the same flexibility as women to manage family care even when they say they want or need to take on more of the responsibilities.
And when workers are expecting a baby, offering equivalent leave to both mothers and fathers can make a big difference in helping women stay in the workforce and advance in their careers during the pandemic. Most states and companies have policies that are more generous to mothers than fathers – often twice as much.
One more step companies can take is to more actively assist with child care, whether by providing outright subsidies or simply information and guidance about availableresources.
Companies can also correct for some of these issues during performance reviews by adjusting unrealistic productivity expectations.