March 8, 2021 By Victoria Pelletier 5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably left the world reeling. A plethora of physical, emotional, economic, and social issues have devastated us, and while we all share the burden of perseverance and recovery, it has become clear that a disproportionate share of that burden is being shouldered by women. This is especially true with respect to the current childcare crisis we face. How does it affect our careers and career prospects? Are there effective solutions and answers to meet these new challenges?

A Woman’s burden?

As women, the role of nurturer comes instinctively to many. As mothers, nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our children. While some progress has been made in terms of gender equality over the years, when it comes to making sure our children are cared for, woman are still the ones who typically step forward first to take responsibility for their needs.

As COVID-19 has shut down schools and daycare centers across the country, it has been primarily women who have left the labor force and stepped back and into roles as primary caregivers and mangers of their households, to compensate for the sudden loss of childcare resources that were such a vital component of North American family life.

What the numbers say

Statistics support this truth. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there are currently about 130 million households (with or without children) in the United States. Approximately 69% of those are two-parent households and 17% are single-parent households. Of the single-parent households, about 70% of those are maintained by single mothers as opposed to fathers. And of the married couples with children where only one spouse is working, that working spouse was male by a ratio of 3 to 1.

Jobs lost by women accounted for 100% of the net jobs lost that disappeared in December. The long term impact of women taking a step back from their career right now is projected to set women back in their career advancement anywhere from 2 to 10 years.

The IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study, “2021 Women and Leadership Study,” offers telling results on the topic of gender experiences in the workplace during the time of COVID. Between November 2020 and January 2021, the IBV surveyed more than 2,600 executives, managers, and professional women and men across 10 industries and 9 geographies. A global two-day virtual “jam” with 3,100 women and gender diversity allies captured additional experiences and perspectives.

The IBV study reveals that the pipeline for women in leadership has shrunk over the last year. Despite some changing perceptions and corporate initiatives, such as diversity training or mentorship, accountability has been slow. This is especially true for Black, Hispanic and other women of color. Numerous studies show that organizations with high scores in gender equity gain both performance improvements and happier employees. Yet women continue to experience relatively lower salaries and less advancement because of discomfort, resistance and a lack of accountability.

A too-familiar scenario

Businesses and communities need to move quickly to remediate the challenges facing women. For example, does this scenario sound familiar? Your job has gone virtual, and you’ve been tasked with figuring out how to put in a productive day’s work from home. (Or worse, your job is one of those lost altogether because of the pandemic.) On top of that, your kids’ daycare and schools have either closed or switched to virtual learning — but either way, the kids are home all day and you have become their babysitter and teacher.

Beyond childcare, many women carry to responsibility of other routine household roles, including but not limited to cooking, cleaning, shopping, and home upkeep. Couple these responsibilities with helping to foster an environment of stability and comfort for your children during such uncertain times and it quickly becomes easy to understand why levels of stress and anxiety are at record highs.

For working mothers, this added stress can seem impossible to take on. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to adequately fulfil all of these needs while still succeeding at work or even looking for your next challenge and growth opportunity for your career. The support system to help women in this situation is largely lacking and the repercussions from this moment in time will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.

You don’t ask, you don’t get

Chances are, even if your personal situation differs somewhat from the above, you can relate and commiserate. The question is, how to get through it? One answer: Use your voice. Start the discussion and ask how the challenges we face – and the solutions – will be addressed.

It has long been my philosophy that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Nothing has been given to women that we didn’t have to demand for ourselves and fight for. We’ve made strides socially and politically towards equality over the years, but along comes COVID-19 and we find ourselves backsliding. Because of our innate desire to nurture, we may want to be able to do it all. And while many of us are reluctant to ask for help, that is exactly what we must do.

Let’s get specific

Understand what kind of help you need. Know and ask for the compensation level you deserve. Voice your feelings, your concerns, your frustrations, and your desires. Probe to find out and help bring about support to counter these COVID-driven challenges. For example:

  • Are there any crises-specific interventions?
  • Are there any new COVID related benefits like backup childcare support or emergency leave?
  • Who in the organization or community are the enablers of change? Who are your allies to advocate and take demonstrable action?
  • What programs will be instituted to bring women back into the workplace?
  • How will success be measured and quantified?

Leaders and managers need to be advocates for women, demonstrating and promoting the actions that bring change. Because you, like everyone else, deserve to find a balance in life between career and family.

Our choices are harder than ever right now, but the choices shouldn’t be between having a career and a family, or about which needs will go unmet when we are out of time, energy, or resources. Even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to envision the help we need and use our voice to demand it — from our family members, our employers, and our communities.

Accountability is key

It is true that deeper change will involve some discomfort. It is also true that organizations can take a more effective approach to gender and diversity programs by using data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Continued inaction is often cloaked by a lack of accountability and detail about the metrics of equity initiatives. The IBM IBV study indicates that technology can be a powerful tool for organizations to breakthrough and create significant gender diversity gains. New insights, business processes, metrics and strategies for hiring, collaboration and career development can put some teeth into inclusion efforts.  The companies who embrace how technology can support our new normal and prioritize infrastructure to employ working parents will ultimately be those who grow and come out of this ahead”

Everyone seems to want to tell us that we are “all in this together.” So please, ladies, reach out and speak up about new approaches and accountability. It’s past time for organizations to honor their commitments. We can speed the pace of change by applying both formal and informal means.

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