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The Pandemic's Toll on Women — and How PFML Can Help

The pandemic has affected women in a big way. You can see the problem in the numbers: almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce since it began last year.1 And Black, Hispanic and single mothers are among the hardest hit.2 Closely connected to the loss of maternal income, almost one in four children experienced food insecurity in 2020.3

Losing Ground at Work

Contrast today with late 2019, when a rare workplace scenario emerged. For three months, women held more jobs than men in the U.S. economy.2 Women started 2020 holding 50.03% of jobs. But by the time 2020 ended, women were holding 860,000 fewer jobs than their male peers.2 At the end of 2020, women held 47% of all jobs in the U.S. compared to 53% for men.4

The pandemic quickly undermined women’s progress. And the situation kept getting worse:

  • In August and September 2020 alone, 1.1 million people ages 20 and over left the workforce — over 800,000 were women.1
    • For comparison, 216,000 men left the job market in the same period.1
  • In December, the U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs — all held by women.2
    • Women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000.2

As of December 2020, women were down 5.4 million jobs overall since February 2020, before the pandemic began. That compares to 4.4 million job losses for men.1

Pushed Out — And Opting Out

That's a lot of job loss for women during the pandemic. What are some reasons behind those numbers? First, consider the industries that collapsed under the pandemic’s impact. Many are female-dominated fields, like hospitality, education, entertainment and some parts of the health care system.

The pandemic has also spotlighted many disparities within the workforce for women. It’s causing a lot of women to rethink what's really important to them. Now — even as vaccinations roll out and the economy stirs back to life — many are saying “no thanks” to returning to work.

One in four women are considering scaling back their careers or leaving the workforce for reasons related to COVID-19.5Some of the biggest reasons include:

  • Lack of flexibility at work
  • Feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, i.e., “always on”
  • Housework and caregiving burdens due to COVID-19
  • Worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of their caregiving responsibilities
  • Discomfort sharing the challenges they’re facing with teammates or managers

How women are planning to scale back:5

1.  17% — Reducing work hours

2.  16% — Switching to a less demanding job

3.  15% — Taking a leave of absence

4.   8% — Moving from full time to part time

5.   7% — Leaving the workforce all together

These issues hurt all employees, but some groups experience the challenges at higher rates. Mothers are more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance is being judged negatively based on their caregiving responsibilities.3

Quote from one survey respondent (white woman, two kids, vice president)

“I feel like I am failing at everything... at work... at my duties as a mom. I’m failing in every single way, because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible.

“How can you continue to perform at the same level as in the office when you had no distractions, plus being asked to basically become a teacher for kids and everything else with online learning? I’m doing it all, but at the same time I’m feeling like I’m not doing any of it very well. I also worry that my performance is being judged because I’m caring for my children. If I step away from my virtual desk and I miss a call, are they going to wonder where I am?

“I feel that I need to always be on and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes in. And if that’s not happening, then that’s going to reflect poorly on my performance.”

Women in the Workplace 2020, McKinsey & Company and Lean In5

Widening the Wage Gap

Another reason why women are leaving the workforce? In dual-income families, it makes economic sense for the lower earner to stay home to care for kids or sick family members. And it’s no surprise the lower-wage earner is more often than not, a woman.1

The pandemic recession is likely to widen the gap between women’s and men’s earning by five percentage points.1 That setback means the challenges that are driving women out of the workplace could be worse when and if they return.

Weighed Down at Home

Women who are employed full-time tend to work a double shift at home. That extra workload hasn’t changed much during decades of research.5 And during COVID-19, women, especially mothers, are even more overloaded:5

  • 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say childcare is one of their top three challenges during COVID-19.
    • That compares to only 54% of fathers with young children.
  • Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving.3
    • They’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare.
    • That adds up to 20 hours a week — half a full-time job.
  • The challenges are even greater for the one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner.

Extra Impacts for Black and Latina Mothers

Latina and Black mothers are carrying even heavier loads than white mothers. For example, they’re more likely to be their family’s sole breadwinner or to have partners working outside the home during COVID-19.5 Their responsibilities at home are also greater:

  • Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all child care and housework.5
  • Black mothers are twice as likely to be handling it all for their families.5

How Paid Family and Medical Leave Policies Can Help

The pandemic pushed the issues that women were already experiencing to new extremes. It also spotlighted gaps in workplace benefits and national policies that fail to support working women.

One positive trend: 50% of companies added a family leave benefit during the pandemic.5 But temporary fixes aren’t enough. Progress needs to be permanent. With better resources and policies in place, women won’t feel they have to choose between having children or a career — or be sidelined by health issues.

Consistent paid family and medical leave policies can help prevent career gaps and related gender pay imbalances. Protected leave time to deal with family caregiving or medical issues can save a career. And keep a valued employee!

A remarkable 67% of voters favored a proposal in 2020 legislation to provide a system of paid family and medical leave that would be:

  • More expansive
  • Supported by a new payroll tax
  • Permanent

What other lessons can employers apply going forward? First, it’s essential to create a supportive culture where it’s okay to face issues like the ones women are dealing with. Instead of an “us versus them” environment, managers can work to build mutual trust.

Frequent and effective communication is key. Make sure employees are aware of all workplace resources, like employee assistance programs and disability benefits. And check-in with employees often, so they’ll feel heard and valued. Employers can also check out these strategies to provide more support for behavioral health.

As the economy recovers, it’s time to make the “new normal” workplace more welcoming to women — and to all employees.

See What’s Next

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