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Countering the Women's Recession in a Post-Pandemic World

Women's Recession 2021

March 22, 2021

We have arrived at the one-year anniversary of Women Lead Change sending our staff across the state to work from home until further notice. No one could have predicted how long that new work-from-home lifestyle was going to last, but we adapted as needed. In the beginning, our team had conversations about the potential positive effects of this work-life flexibility on the advancement of professional women in the workforce. We saw it as an opportunity, thinking this will be great for women who have been clamoring for flexibility through remote work. Companies can now see that remote work can work.

And while there are companies that see the benefits and opportunities of remote work, we are also seeing how remote work, without boundaries and structure, is setting women back. In some cases, it is prompting women to step back or step out of the workforce. In a zero in-person workplace, it’s inhibiting critical networking and opportunities for stretch assignments, among other things.

Long before the pandemic, one of the key barriers to women ascending has frequently been identified as workplace structure. Data shows that women still remain the primary caregivers at home with a variety of demands on their time making 60-80 hours a week in an office difficult to accomplish. Add a worldwide pandemic, school closures, caring for aging relatives, educating children and more, and the second shift of household chores now has a third shift in addition to job responsibilities.

The Women’s Recession

Let’s look at some statistics and workforce data. Since 2015, women and men have been leaving the workforce at comparable rates. Today, a report from McKinsey & Company shows that women are 1.3 times more likely than men to leave their job. These numbers accumulate to a potential loss of 2 million women in corporate America with 100,000 of those women in senior leadership positions. This is now being called the Women’s Recession. Due to stresses, personally and professionally, surrounding the cumulative effects of the pandemic, an alarming number of women are leaving the workforce.

As it has been, the mission of Women Lead Change has been supported by research. We recently spearheaded our own study in collaboration with the University of Illinois Chicago to see what working women in our audience were feeling over this past year. Some of the most revealing data had to do with issues around depression and mental health. There have clearly been mental and physical costs to women during the pandemic. How does this relate to women leaving the workforce?

What our survey respondents said was that the largest contributing factor to quitting work, symptoms of depression and physical symptoms of depression are the sacrifices being made by women during the pandemic.

Now we are in Women’s History Month. A women’s recession is one piece of history that, I for one, want to make short-lived. What is the business case for this work? We know that when women are well represented at the top that companies are 50% more likely to outperform their peers. It’s clear that this is not just a women’s issue, it is a business issue. When women lose, we all lose.

The best companies are identifying ways to turn this trend around to counter the undoing of decades of advancements for women. Organizations that are purposeful in retaining a talented workforce during the pandemic have a better chance to thrive in a post-pandemic world. Here are a few ideas:

  • Adjust productivity and performance goals to align with work-life integration in mind.
  • Communicate flexibility and mean it.
  • Establish no meeting hours in the day.
  • Adjust policies and programs to support employees including paid time off, mental health support, childcare/homeschool support.
  • Communicate expectations and plans. Be transparent through multiple checkpoints.

Greater Des Moines (DSM) welcomes diverse talent to the region. As one of the fastest growing business communities, inclusion and attracting diverse talent in the workplace is a key strategy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Learn more here.

You can count on The Partnership to continue to share accurate and fact-based updates. See more on COVID-19 here.

Tiffany O'Donnell

Tiffany O'Donnell is an Emmy-award winning journalist and current chief executive officer of Women Lead Change, a premier leadership development organization. Known for her accessible style and ability to connect, Tiffany is a dynamic speaker and thought leader who has dedicated her "second career" to helping others reach the unreachable.