The pandemic has created an employment ‘she-cession’

Professional women are taking a huge hit from COVID

THE COVID PANDEMIC is impacting everyone and everything. From the elderly to front line workers to children displaced from school, populations around the world are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. But when it comes to COVID’s economic and social collateral damage, far too little attention is being paid to the impact on women. They are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate in order to take care of their families, turning our economic crisis into a “she-cession” that is erasing many of the workplace gains women have made in recent years.

Just a week before Election Day, President Trump addressed women at a campaign event in Michigan saying, “We’re getting your husbands back to work.” But the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced this month that 80 percent of the nearly 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force in September were women. That’s 865,000 women, compared to 216,000 men. It seems that even more than husbands, women, wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters need to get back to work.

In order to prevent this alarming trend from getting worse, it needs to be acknowledged by both political and business leaders. Then CEOs across every industry must make the investment and mindset changes needed to put women on a new pandemic-era path to career and financial security.

This can be accomplished in three very tangible ways. First, commit to creating channels that rehire women who leave the workforce for any length of time. Second, support current female employees in ways they haven’t before. Finally, give women and families affordable childcare options, subsidies, and equal pay.

Hire Returning Women

When my family was in a nearly fatal car accident, I spent a year out of the workforce helping my daughter recuperate. In that short time, I realized just how daunting and isolating re-entering the workforce can feel. After that experience, I made it my mission to help women achieve their full potential by working with businesses to create hiring channels that support returning women before, during, and after the re-entry process so they succeed and stay in their new organizations.

Hiring one returning woman at a time will not move the needle when it comes to recovering from COVID’s gender equality devastation. A cohort model is far more effective for long-term success. In this model, an organization would offer a trial period for a group of women and include a comprehensive onboarding and training process for the whole group. This should, most often, pave a path into a permanent role at the company, creating a necessary bridge back to work.

By training returners together, the company saves time and money, and a built-in support system is created for women navigating their new environment. Women feel better supported from the outset and companies achieve gender diversity at a greater pace and scale. Companies like Fidelity, Wayfair, and T-Mobile are industry vanguards and powerful examples of the efficacy and impact of the cohort model for returning women.

Support Female Talent on Your Payroll Now

Hiring and training a new employee is a costly process for businesses. It is far more economical to retain the talent you’ve worked so hard to find. During COVID, companies need to address the unprecedented and unique needs of female employees today, from flexible schedules to combating loneliness to needing mentor support. Establishing small peer groups within an organization doubles as both a professional development tool as well as a place for employees to build a community that has a tremendous impact on employee retention. In the safety of small groups, women can more openly and honestly share concerns, ask questions and seek advice from colleagues and mentors.

Offer Better Childcare and Equal Pay

Women have been fighting for decades to achieve equality in the workplace. Before COVID, we were making strides in creating change around equal pay and gender diversity. But, like so many other things, COVID has stalled our progress.

During the pandemic, women are seeing wages slow to 0.2 percent year-over-year while men are seeing wage growth of 1.2 percent. The ongoing, inequitable pay split between men and women means that men will likely continue moving up the ranks, while women will continue to fall behind and then out of the workforce. As long as the wage gap exists between men and women, we will not drive the change necessary to invert the cycle.

Meet the Author
If business leaders do nothing to increase their support for women, we can no longer call the mass exodus of women from the workforce unintentional and unintended. The gap will only widen. We need to act now. By redefining what it means to support women at work, employers can help refuel the engine of progress and make the future more equitable for all. Not in spite of COVID, but because of it.

Addie Swartz is the founder and CEO of reacHIRE, a Boston-based company changing the trajectory for women returning to work by partnering with forward-thinking companies to create environments where women thrive, advance, lead and stay.