If Jane Austen were writing Pride and Prejudice in 2021, she might have written something like, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person working during a pandemic, must be in want of a simpler life.”
While this is true for some and can be easy to forget when you’re trapped in back-to-back video calls, replying to endless notifications and trying to achieve inbox zero (spoiler alert: it’s a myth), there’s a group of people who’ve fallen through the cracks. This group is the millions of women+ who have lost their jobs over the last year and have yet to gain them back, creating not just a recession but a she-cession. By using workforce planning, however, and other tactics to support women+ in the workforce, we can challenge this issue.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 140,000 jobs were lost in the U.S. during December 2020—all lost by women of color. Specifically, women lost 156,000 jobs and men gained 16,000. A separate survey revealed that while women of color lost jobs that month, white women had gained jobs. We must keep in mind that the survey included self-employed workers and that both sets of data reflect net numbers which hide the fact that white women and men also lost jobs.
In Canada, the reality was similar. 1.5 million women lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic and by November, “men gained jobs back at three times the rate as women.” That month, the unemployment rate was 10.5% for women of color, 6.2% for white women and 10% for men. These numbers only escalated for specific minority groups—for example, the unemployment rate in the summer was 20.4% for South Asian women, 18.6% for Black women and 16.8% for Indigenous women.
But these numbers spotlight another truth universally acknowledged: women of color have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. In our reality, this truth is not a surprise since women of color were already struggling to overcome inequities in the workplace and advance their careers. The truth does, however, raise a question:
Why are women, especially women of color, more affected by the pandemic than men? (Beyond the usual suspects, of course—we’re looking at you, sexism and systemic racism.)
The short answer is, women aren’t just losing their jobs. They’re also choosing to leave them for several reasons. Until we figure out how to overcome these additional challenges facing working and unemployed women, the she-cession will continue to go on and all the progress made toward closing the gender pay gap and the gender wealth gap will continue to be undone.
Why Are Women Leaving Their Jobs?
If you thought one of the answers was “to go home and take care of the kids,” you might have time-traveled from the early 20th century … but you’d also be kind of right. During World War I, women had to join the workforce to compensate for enlisted men and after the war, although some women stayed in their positions (for lower wages), others were forced to return home to domestic duties. Times have changed, but the expectations and sense of duty mothers have for themselves have not, especially during a pandemic.
In the U.S., one in four women (vs. one in eight men) reported they left their job because of a lack of childcare. In a November 2020 report, RBC noted that mothers with children under six were about 41% of the workforce but accounted for about 66% of women who lost their job. Women of color also disproportionately work in areas more adversely affected by the pandemic, usually in roles that offer little flexibility with paid sick leave and working from home. This forces women to choose between working and parenting while their children are unable to attend school or daycare.
Besides women being more likely to have been laid off, the pandemic has also exacerbated the challenges they face in the workplace. Senior-level women tend to feel pressured to work more and need to prove their competency more often than men, leading to higher rates of burnout. And McKinsey notes, Black women have had to deal with “the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community” as well as “the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence.”
Before 2020, men and women left their jobs at comparable rates, but the challenges above have led to a shift in priorities for women: one in four women and one in three mothers considered “downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.” Worse yet, women leaving the workforce has a domino effect on those who stay because women tend to support each other and diversity more than men do. Women in senior positions are more likely to advocate for other women, promote DEI initiatives and credit other women for their work. Suffice to say, we cannot afford to lose women in the workforce. So what can businesses and organizations do to support women and other marginalized groups in the workforce?
How Can Workforce Planning Help?
Workforce planning is a business process in which an organization finds a balance between its changing needs and its workforce. It helps you to accommodate demographic changes, reduce labor costs, manage existing talent and adapt to your business’ future staffing needs. In terms of the she-cession, workforce planning can help you identify strategies geared toward your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals.
For example, you can periodically ask your employees optional questions about areas such as disability, faith, family status, gender identity, LGBTQIA+, mental health, native language and race/ethnicity. Then, you can use that anonymous data in your workforce planning solution to create a dashboard that shows you how the metrics change over time and how they break down by department and location. You can also tie it back to other employee data, such as salary, and see how that changes on average as your anonymous metrics do.
People tend to be more cautious of organizations that appear only superficially diverse, so effectively using workforce planning for DEI can also show your potential customers and partners that you sincerely value representation. To this end, workforce planning can help you prepare for when women leave and re-enter the workforce. When women leave, it can be difficult for them to re-enter and for those who do re-enter, they may get demoted or find it difficult to get promoted. To prevent this hurdle, especially during the pandemic when more women than usual have left the workforce, offer “on-ramps.” These are opportunities for women to smoothly rejoin the workforce with a path for career advancement.
Workforce planning can also point out a lack of diversity within your current workforce and highlight the specific areas needing improvement. You can use this insight to make your recruitment strategies more inclusive and work on ways to retain existing staff to strengthen your workforce from both ends. For example, now that you know who is affected by the she-cession and how much different groups are affected, you can use workforce planning to see how those demographics are reflected in your own workforce and challenge the she-cession from within your organization.
Supporting Women in the Workforce
There are also other practical ways to help women and other minority groups in your organization using workplace policies, support programs, compensation packages and surveys.
- Set policies around working overtime, responding to emails and messages outside business hours and working on weekends and holidays.
- Have mental and physical wellness policies and be transparent about them to build trust and tackle burnout.
- Encourage employees to prioritize self-care and set boundaries. Fostering a culture where colleagues respect each other’s boundaries is key to this tactic succeeding.
- Periodically review and update your DEI policies to break down barriers women+ and women+ of color face in the workplace.
Support Programs and Compensation Packages
- Offer support programs that provide training for women+ who rejoin the workforce to help them maintain their skills and learn new ones efficiently.
- These support programs can also offer more flexible arrangements for people balancing their work and home lives.
- Offer diverse compensation packages that take into account the different needs of workers; for example, you can offer childcare benefits.
- Use a 360-degree feedback tool to encourage honest feedback between employees of all levels.
- Conduct periodic employee pulse surveys to encourage employees to be honest about the organization and its policies.
- Use the insights from the 360 feedback and pulse surveys to set goals on what to improve and strategize how to maintain what’s working.
We sourced candidates for open roles using a self-reported list of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) professionals who lost their job during the pandemic. We also partner with groups, such as Black Professionals in Tech, Women in Tech Sales and Women Hack, that provide more opportunities to women and people of color.
Between workforce planning and these other tactics, your business can learn a lot about your employees, how they feel about the organization and how it can be improved. Armed with this knowledge, you can create meaningful change in your organization to make it a more welcoming place for women+ and other minorities. And when more employees are happy, you’ll see this reflected in your culture and retention rates, which will ultimately help keep women+ in the workforce and challenge the she-cession.