Happy Women’s History Month! Congress designated March as our annual opportunity to “celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and [to] recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.”
But women’s progress has been complicated by COVID-19. The pandemic cued challenges for working women across the professional spectrum. As a result, scores of women are leaving the workforce. “The pandemic's female exodus has decidedly turned back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce down to levels not seen since 1988.” NPR's Pallavi Gogoi.
Working mothers have been especially impacted. “In a survey from May and June, one out of four women who became unemployed during the pandemic reported the job loss was due to a lack of childcare, twice the rate of men surveyed. A more recent survey shows the losses have not slowed down: between February and August mothers of children 12 years old and younger lost 2.2 million jobs compared to 870,000 jobs lost among fathers.” Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross write for The Brookings Institution.
December 2020 alone illustrates a bleak picture for working women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)’s Monthly Jobs Report shows employers cut 140,000 jobs in December. Women lost 156,000 jobs while their male counterparts gained 16,000.
Women of color are disproportionately impacted. The National Women’s Law Center’s Claire Ewing Nelson explains: “Black women and Latinas continue to be struck by the economic crisis: More than 1 in 12 Black women ages 20 and over (8.4%) and about 1 in 11 Latinas (9.1%) remained unemployed. December’s jobs data also indicates that many unemployed people have been out of work for most of the COVID-19 crisis.”
This March is our opportunity to recognize the extent to which women have been economically impacted by the pandemic and to reach out. Start with the women in your network.
Champion local businesses, especially women and minority-owned.
The communities where we reside are our network in the most concrete sense. Supporting the small, local businesses that comprise our communities is more important now than ever. Small business owners have poured their effort and creativity into revising their business models on the fly. They’re struggling to survive.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Vice President Kamala Harris lamented: “We’ve all felt the loss when businesses in our neighborhoods have closed this past year. In February 2020, around 5 million women were business owners. By April, 1 in 4 had closed their doors.”
Make a commitment to small businesses in your community, especially those that are women and minority-owned. Mindfully support them. Check on them. Connect with them. Use their products and services personally and professionally whenever possible, and rave about them across your social media platforms.
Be a mentor, or better yet, a sponsor.
Mentorship is vital to career growth. Mentors are seasoned practitioners who ideologically guide mentees. It isn't necessary that they work for the same employer or even in the same field as their mentees. They are advisors who help mentees flesh out their ambitions and shape their plans.
Sponsors, on the other hand, champion their protégés’ advancement through concrete action. Sponsors work at the same organizations as their protégés. Sponsors use their connections to advance their protégés by endorsing and guiding them. This can be especially helpful for unrepresented professionals, including women.
If you have not yet served as a mentor or a sponsor, make your mission start this March.
Bateman and Ross write: “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up…Problems facing women in the labor market have never been hidden, but they have been inconvenient to address because they are so entrenched in the basic operations of our economy and society.” The current exodus of women from the workforce is a testament to this point. If you’re in a leadership position, adapt operations to create a professional culture that includes female professionals.
Janelle Owens, HR Director at Test Prep Insight, explains: “The best thing we can do to help women succeed during these trying times is to be flexible in our expectations…cut women a break wherever possible. It is not a handout or charity, but simply what needs to be done to offer equal footing.”
Recognize: an ask to be included at work is not a luxury. It’s a lifeline. Be an ally, and support your co-workers. Owens adds: “For employers, this means offering flexible schedules and reduced responsibilities. . . We have offered several women on our team reduced schedules without dropping their benefits or demoting them. The bottom line is that we need to be understanding, flexible, and offer female colleagues assistance wherever possible. That is how we are going to help women succeed.”
Internalize the numbers you’re reading about the crisis levels at which women are leaving the workforce; recognize the urgency of this.
Here's what you can do to assist:
- Make an introduction to help a neighbor.
- Babysit for a family member preparing for an interview.
- Revise a resume for a former coworker.
- Provide a reference for a friend.
- Reach out however you can.
“Because here’s the truth:” Vice President Harris writes. “Our economy cannot fully recover unless women can fully participate.”