This year was supposed to be a milestone for women. 2020 year marks the 100-year anniversary of the passing and ratification of the 19th Amendment, and recent numbers from December 2019 showed women holding more payroll jobs than men for the first time in a decade.
The country was poised for a celebration of how far women’s advancement had come, and the motivation to continue breaking those glass ceilings was palpable.
Then the unbelievable happened.
Instead of being the push forward many hoped for, 2020 has instead exposed many of the remaining gaps and fault lines when it comes to women’s status.
COVID-19 the ensuing devastation can’t yet be fully determined, but it’s safe to assume that no demographic hasn’t been affected. Masking up and social distancing is likely to be the ‘new normal’ for quite some time.
Economically, this wave seems to be hitting women harder than men — call it a ‘shecession.’ Numbers released in May from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 55% of jobs lost in April were held by women, marking the first time female unemployment has reached double digits since 1948.
With more women in the workforce than men, that might be expected. But the information also reveals more about the type of work and positions available to women.
Some experts say women have been hit hard by the economic upheaval because the industries most disrupted — travel, hospitality, personal services and education — are dominated by female workers.
Women are also more likely to contract the virus through work. According to data, the majority of essential jobs are held by women.
And many women have been forced to cut hours, go on furlough or quit their positions entirely in order to fulfill parenting obligations in a world where millions of children now have to stay home. When it came down to the wire, women were still expected to pick up the extra domestic and parental responsibilities, regardless of their employment status.
Consequently, a lot of the progress women have made in the workplace may have just been dealt a major setback.
Even though women were holding more jobs — and are the primary breadwinners in around 40% of U.S. households — those positions were the most disposable. They often came with lower pay, little room for promotion and no benefits or security.
Losing this part of the workforce will have devastating, lasting effects on communities, families and the economy.
The lesson accentuates an old fact: Our outdated work system lags behind when it comes to fighting gender bias.
Studies show that women start in lower positions and have to work harder for promotions or raises, even with the same experience, education and hours worked as their male counterparts.
The motherhood penalty punishes women who become mothers with paycuts (typically 4% per child) and no upward mobility, while men are typically rewarded for becoming fathers (around a 6% raise per child).
Compared to six years ago, twice the number of women are afraid to tell their boss they’re pregnant, and 42% of working women believe a child will hurt their work trajectory.
Yet, there may be a silver lining to this year’s upheaval after all.
Some employers have embraced the benefits of remote or flex work for years, but the pandemic has forced many more to adjust out of necessity. Now some companies will be making the changes permanent, noting that the professional and personal benefits are significant and have no impact (or are even beneficial) to their overall productivity.
A change like this could be beneficial for all, especially working mothers, as reported by Deseret News reporter Erica Evans. It offers flexibility and availability, without having to compromise the quality of work.
Not every family or situation would find this beneficial, and not every industry can switch to remote work, but it’s still worth making the shift. The key is to embrace flexibility when possible and abandon the rigidity of an outdated system that has been preventing some of the world’s best talent from making their mark.
The United States can’t afford to lose or push women out of the workforce. Women-owned businesses in the United States employ nearly 9 million people and account for $1.7 trillion in sales. The country needs their talents, skills and voices.
Perhaps the pandemic can teach us that the future is ready to move toward a work culture based on productivity and results instead of blocks of time logged at a desk.
The coronavirus has dealt a striking blow, but perhaps it can be made into a stepping stone. One hundred years after what many consider the biggest milestone for women in American history, it’s time to find another way to lift women’s voices and talents.