The Shecession, and Where We Must Go

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01/21/2021

It’s officially been christened – 2020 is the year of the “Shecession.”

COVID-19 has upended lives around the world, but the evidence continues to show the economic downturn has disproportionately affected women. As children are forced to stay home from school and loved ones are in need of care, women are leaving or considering leaving the workforce at an alarming rate. According to McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn’s “Women in the Workplace” study, one in four women are thinking about reducing their job responsibilities or quitting work altogether.

What does that look like in numbers? In September, as the second wave of the pandemic intensified, 1.1 million workers left the workforce, and a shocking 865,000 (79%) of those were women.

a woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Sarah Alter

Women of Color

The numbers grow bleaker when looking at the impact of the recession on women of color. In October, the unemployment rate for Black women older than 20 was 9.3%. Compared to the unemployment rate of white women that month (5.4%), which was actually lower than that of white men (6.2%), the Shecession is clearly hitting women of color hardest.

According to a National Women’s Law Center report released in October, “more than half of Latinas (57.1%) and Black, non-Hispanic women (53.6%) reported a loss of income since March, compared to 41% of white, non-Hispanic men and 40.4% of white, non-Hispanic women.”

What Can We Do?

Some aspects of the current situation feel out of our control, but we can push for key changes that will better support women during this incredibly difficult time. We must do better for women in 2021 to help them stay in the workforce, and to help women who have left it come back.

Employers must support their employees with work policies that allow them to keep their careers while caring for their children. That doesn’t just mean more flexibility in setting work hours, or kindness and compassion when the kids show up on Zoom, though those changes are important. It means concrete policy change for the long haul.

According to the “Women in the Workplace” study, “less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic, and only about half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations during COVID-19.”

Expecting employees to turn optimal productivity in this impossible year is a losing game for both employers and employees. Whether they are caring for children, caring for loved ones, or simply caring for themselves, an undue burden has shifted to women during the pandemic.

More pressure and more stress forces women out of the workforce, leaving businesses short on skilled workers – and working women out of a job.

Systemwide Change

The answer is systemic, too. We need to ensure this kind of disproportionate disenfranchising of women never happens again. That means, at the most basic level, working toward a more equitable society where men and women share equal responsibilities and expectations for housework and childcare.

But that also means more opportunities for women in fields where remote work is not an impossibility. The lower the pay for a job, the more overrepresented women are as employees. Closing this gap is key to closing the wage gap for all women, and that work must continue against the setbacks that will surely come out of this tragic time.

Investing in diversity and inclusion within organizations is one step in the right direction. Supporting women-led businesses, supporting the leadership development of women throughout their career journeys, and ensuring your organization is following D&I best practices will all help move the needle.

If the Shecession is to be combated and we are not to lose years of hard-fought, precious progress for women’s equality, we must be intentional. We must look very carefully at the decisions we make over the next year, and we must commit to supporting women or risk losing them.

NOTE: Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a learning and leadership community representing 12,400 members in 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at newonline.org.

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