COVID-19 Caused a Hemorrhaging of Job Losses for Women
Lorraine Hariton, President and CEO of Catalyst, sees the pandemic’s silver lining
As we enter a new phase of the COVID-19 mask/no-mask debate, thanks to new COVID cases among unvaccinated and fully-vaccinated people, women have yet to recover on the employment front some 18 months after the start of the pandemic.
“Women were close to parity before the pandemic,” observes Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace. Hariton is referring to the fact that so many women have left the labor force, that the gains they made over the past few decades toward being as present in the workplace as men have been wiped out.
The most alarming job losses occurred during the first half of 2020, when, after much of the country went into lockdown in March, the number of unemployed people reached 20.6 million, according to a 2020 Labor Report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s roughly 5 million more people without jobs than during the Great Recession. Women were hit particularly hard on the job front for several reasons. The service industries, for example, where women account for just over half of those employed, literally shut down for months, resulting in devastating job losses, and a total 2020 unemployment rate of 13 percent for that sector. Women are also more likely than men to work part-time, and part-time jobs dropped significantly. And, some women could not balance kids being out of school and needing supervision with their new work-from-home lifestyles, and simply gave up.
For the quarter ending June 30, the number of unemployed women 20 years or older was about 4 million, down drastically from a whopping nearly 9.7 million for the same period in 2020, seasonally adjusted. But BLS figures reveal that the number of women who chose to leave their jobs and look for new work has been steadily rising over this time frame: 379,000 chose to stop working, compared with 244,000 for June 30, 2020 (not seasonally adjusted).
Notably, there were 74.2 million women in the labor force registered for the first quarter of 2020, a figure that dropped to 72.7 million for the second quarter of this year. And perhaps most alarming, although the average seasonally adjusted rate of unemployment for this age group dropped to 5.6 percent compared with 8.3 percent for the first half of 2020, unemployment levels have not been this bad for women for nearly a decade. The last time the number of women 20 years or older hovered in the 4 million range was in 2014 and it had been decreasing ever since until the pandemic hit.
Since the start of the pandemic, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), using BLS data, in June estimated that over 3.8 million women left the labor force. And even more depressing, the NWLC concluded that women need over 9 straight months of job gains to recover the jobs they lost since COVID hit the US.
The Covey spoke at length with Catalyst’s Lorraine Hariton about the impact of COVID-19 on women in the labor force and how the negatives can spark some positive change. Here, some of our conversation.
CoveyClub: What were overall employment trends for women pre-COVID?
Hariton: In January 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women were more represented in the labor force than men. We had come from a place over history — if you go back to our grandparents, women had not been in the workforce in a big way.
But [pandemic aside], there’s a lot of work to be done to achieve parity as we look at senior levels of management. Roughly 25 percent of middle management jobs are held by women. And if you look at the very top, at Fortune 500 companies, only 8 percent of chief executive officers were women. There is a long ways to go for women to be in positions of power across all industries.
The gender pay gap is still a problem. Women are paid at 80 percent of the rate of their male counterparts. Equal pay for equal work — many large companies are moving towards equal pay. Bank of America and Citibank, for example, have done regular audits of their pay scale. This is less true of smaller organizations. But one thing that does affect equal pay is that women go out and back into the workforce [which means their salaries for the same job rise at a different rate than a man who stays on a steady career path].
CoveyClub: What has COVID-19’s impact been on women overall and notably Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC)?
Hariton: Women of color have been disproportionately hit in front line jobs as well as those [working] in the food services industries, hospitality, cleaning services, etc. But what I am really focused on is the fact that the pandemic laid bare the inequities in our society around structural racism, unpaid work, inadequate childcare, pay inequity and more.
There’s incredible focus around these issues now. Senior leaders, CEOs that I deal with, are increasingly focused on diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI]. Companies are now hiring chief diversity officers left and right. There’s a lot of new intentionality around this. Kamala Harris as the vice president [is impactful].
CoveyClub: Can you elaborate on inclusion?
Hariton: One of the things we need to work on is inclusive leadership: empathy is key to that, and the first line manager has to make that happen. Flex and remote work has been a big driver for women who are trying to achieve balance in their lives. Managers need to understand who is working for [them] and how to make work work for everyone. For example, a factory worker might want to have dinner with their family from 5 pm to 7 pm but return back to work.
It’s less about training people to be empathetic and more about practice. Empathy is about being able to see and understand another person’s thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. If you’ve never done that, then you have to work at it. It takes intentional practice.
CoveyClub: Has the office become obsolete?
Hariton: COVID has forced a big experiment [in how women work], and we will come back to a hybrid model. Senior or older women want more flexibility and to work from home — and the changes in working imposed by COVID will improve the ability for women to do this at all ages.
CoveyClub: A Catalyst-CNBC survey last year demonstrated that COVID had a huge negative impact on female parents. It revealed that 49 percent of working mothers said they were unaware of employer funded childcare benefits; and 4 in 10 parents feared taking advantage of benefits would be a risk to their employment. Not all companies can financially provide such benefits, and it’s alarming that women did not know what benefits their own companies offered.
Hariton: It varies widely. Bank of America has very significant childcare benefits, notably parental leave, not just maternity leave. My son who works for Microsoft has 3 months of parental leave. [Corporate] leadership has to encourage this; the companies that have the wherewithal to do this are concerned about keeping their talent. Women who are coming out of college are leaning into and expecting this. Companies that are not as profitable or that are smaller can’t really offer [such leave packages].
Compared with other countries, the US is laggard. The country needs to step up on legislation for affordable childcare and for parental leave — some feel it is a government responsibility — and President Biden has done so [via the American Families Plan].
CoveyClub: Despite the troubling unemployment figures, you believe that there is a silver-lining to COVID’s interruption of the workplace.
Hariton: It has enabled a once-in-a-century opportunity to drive real change in the workplace. This unexpected global experiment around remote work coupled with accelerated digital transformation will change the workplace with intentionality in ways not seen since the industrial revolution.
With technology and distance, companies and senior leaders have to be intentional in setting up their remote workforce for success. They have to invest in, provide the right tools, and secure technology (e.g., video calling, instant messaging, cloud servers, project management software), and they have to train their employees to use it. And to make sure employees don’t feel out of touch or forgotten, you have to redouble your efforts to communicate without over communicating. By now we all have virtual meeting fatigue, so you have to be strategic in scheduling regular meetings and to create space to have virtual water cooler conversations. You also need to check in with your teams to share success and challenges. It takes an investment of time in remote work, but these are best practices.
And, there is a renewed focus on equity and inclusion as a key to making progress. All of these shifts give women a real opportunity to not only regain their positions, but to grow beyond them, potentially, in more equitable and fulfilling ways in the future.