Can the Pandemic Make the Workplace Better for Women?

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The pandemic caused varying levels of uncertainty, change and chaos for women in the workplace. To understand how that disruption will affect women in the workplace going forward, you first have to look at the relationship between women and work during the global health crisis.

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Depending on the type of work, position level, workload and family situation, the pandemic brought measurable upheaval to women's work, family and work-life balance.

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The Pandemic's Effect on Women's Workplaces

How the pandemic affected your workplace largely depends on what kind of job you were in when news of the virus triggered a public health response.

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For instance, women working in corporate America, organizational management, information, tech, finance and insurance experienced minor impacts on business operations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These office-based positions transitioned to remote work environments with relative ease, without employees ceasing their daily work.

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Women in food service, accommodations, retail, healthcare and other service jobs experienced something more. During shutdown periods, many women in these industries were told not to work. Others were now called "essential workers" and were told to report to work, facing new regulations, daily operations and challenges – without the benefits, paid sick leave or time off offered by other full-time jobs.

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These hardest-hit sectors also happened to be higher-risk, lower-pay industries, making economic recovery increasingly difficult for women in these jobs.

Consider also:Guess Who's Working the Most Dangerous Jobs

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Ethnicity and Workplace Disruption

In addition to the job sector, a woman's ethnicity also played a role in pandemic life and work disruption. Latinas are overrepresented in service industries hit hardest during the pandemic. The UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative reports that nearly 700,000 Latinas in the hospitality sector lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. As of December 2021, BLS reported the Latina unemployment rate at ​4.7 percent​, 40 percent higher than that of white women in the same month.

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Also heavily concentrated in service-oriented sectors, Black women were severely impacted by COVID job losses. In December 2021, ​6.7 percent​ of Black women were unemployed – 58 percent more jobless than white women.

In short, the ethnicity-based workplace disparities that existed before the pandemic were amplified when business sectors with high percentages of ethnic minorities became devastated by virus-related shutdowns.

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Consider also​: Yes, the Pandemic Is Harder on Women

Pandemic Childcare Challenges

Working women with children also dealt with the pandemic's impact on childcare, which further magnified longstanding gender-based disparities in the workplace. According to UN Women, "Women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men." This includes childcare, elder care, meal preparation, grocery shopping and other essential work of daily life.

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This gender equality issue grew more prominent during the pandemic, especially among working Latina and Black women. Many women left the workforce to allow male counterparts to continue working, especially if that partner carried the healthcare benefits or brought in a larger salary. The gender pay gap was alive and well before the pandemic and continued in 2020, with women earning 84 percent of what men earned, according to Pew Research Center.

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Women in industries that couldn't transition to remote work needed new childcare solutions, as daycare centers and schools faced interruptions, temporary closures and shifts to remote learning.

Nearly 3.5 million women took leave or left their jobs due to childcare issues at the height of the pandemic, while women adapting to remote work juggled between workplace and additional caregiving roles.

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Consider also​: The Best and Worst States to Be a Working Mother

Gender and Racial Equality and the Pandemic

Due to various pandemic-related reasons, ​2.3 million​ women exited the workforce altogether between February 2020 and February 2021, according to Gallup. That is 493,000 more than the number of men who left jobs during the same time.

The 2021 Women in the Workplace (WIW) report by McKinsey & Company reported that one in three women considered leaving their career or taking a less demanding role in 2021 compared to one in four women in early 2020. The main reason: burnout

Women in leadership roles burned out as employees required more emotional support, mentoring and well-being checks during the pandemic. According to the WIW 2021 report, although there are twice as many men serving in senior leadership roles, "women are shouldering roughly double the load of mentorship and sponsorship."

Women and the Great Resignation

Organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz is credited with naming the mass U.S. worker exodus "The Great Resignation." In addition to economic, healthcare and childcare challenges, Klotz predicted that Americans would do soul-searching and career rethinking due to the pandemic.

He wasn't wrong. According to numbers from 2021 BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) Reports, the total number of Americans who have quit their jobs is at ​38 million in 2021,​ with a record-breaking ​3.9 million​ in November. These numbers signal a pandemic epiphany calling for workplace change.

In recent months, the needle is starting to move for women's employment numbers. Unemployment rates for all women are closer to their pre-pandemic numbers, at ​3.6 percent​ in December 2021, down from 15.5 percent in April 2020.

According to the BLS and National Women's Law Center, women secured more than 75,000 new jobs in hospitality, retail, health services and education in November 2021. Now that women are returning to work, what will they find?

Spotlight on Women in the Workplace

While employment numbers for women as a whole are inching up, the BLS reports that unemployment rates are dropping more slowly for Asian women, Black women and Latinas. The spotlight and measurement of pandemic-related employment data is bringing workplace racial and gender disparities to the foreground. The inequality inherent in the workplace has become mainstream news.

The Institute for Women's Policy and Research highlights areas where policy can help turn the tides for women of color. Childcare, access to education and training and the cost of basic needs keep many women from achieving career stabilization and economic security.

The turbulence of last year and the initiatives to help Americans recover are making women's needs more visible. The Biden administration is responding with assistance like the American Rescue Plan, stating: "This pandemic has exacerbated and shone a light on many issues – among them the enormous economic barriers facing so many women, particularly women of color, and the consequences of those barriers for them and for our economy."

Returning to a Changed Workplace

In addition to national and global conversations on gender pay gap and racial inequality, there is hope for the state of women in the workplace as other DEI issues rise to eye level.

A 2021 World at Work survey reports that more than ​80 percent​ of U.S. organizations are addressing DEI issues and opportunities in the workplace and taking on ethnic and gender diversity initiatives. Organizations like Lean In provide DEI training programs to help create more inclusive workplaces for women and address issues women face, such as microaggressions, sexual harassment and lack of allyship.

Many employers were forced to be more flexible during the pandemic and shifted toward family-friendly policies on remote work. Gallup reports that remote work is "persisting and trending permanent," with 9 out of 10 surveyed workers expressing a desire to remain at least partially remote. For many women, especially single parents, the trend toward flexible and inclusive work policies eases stress and increases overall well-being.

In the hospitality industry, workers gained leverage as the workforce dwindled. Higher wages and sign-on bonuses entered an industry that previously treated employees as somewhat expendable.

The Biden Administration's proposed "Raise the Wage Act" may not be the answer for hospitality, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the National Restaurant Association, but the conversation is open. Hospitality employers are revising business models and daily operations to address the devastating effect of the pandemic and working toward ways to retain workers, offer higher rates and help employees.

The Bottom Line

The pandemic was nothing short of catastrophic for many women in the workforce, especially women of color. The recovery for women of all ethnicities and family types is slow, and the gender pay gap is still real.

The silver lining of the havoc wreaked by the pandemic is that truths have been uncovered. Workplaces and policymakers are talking about what happened to women in the labor force, and pro-women advocacy groups are speaking with voices as loud as ever.

Now is the time to have your voice heard within your company, speak out for equal pay and equal opportunity, ally with a group like Lean In and join other women in making the workplace diverse, equal and inclusive.

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