The COVID-19 gender gap: What happens if women don’t return to work?

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Here are some implications of the pandemic-driven work imbalance and what long-term consequences could look like, according to experts and historians.

Image: Drazen Zigic, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Women and Work, part 4 of a 4-part series

The widespread layoffs and resignations caused by COVID-19 have taken a more severe toll on women: In the last year, almost 3 million women have dropped out of the workforce. This is a major shift, reversing the trend of women’s increasing presence in the workforce. In early 2020, women were actually working in greater numbers than men. 

To make matters worse, the impact has been more pronounced for underprivileged women—those working lower-wage jobs, and minorities—as well as for working mothers, who have been saddled with additional tasks such as healthcare for elderly relatives, childcare and education.

The pandemic-driven gender gap has also revealed preexisting inequalities in the tech industry, as women are more likely to be lower down on the totem pole, and their positions are more easily expended when budgets are slashed.

When it comes to leadership positions, for instance, women have long faced challenges for equal access. The Pew Research Center’s Data on Women Leaders report shows that a mere 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 22% of people on the boards of Fortune 500 companies are women.

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: What employers can do to keep women on board

While the current situation of women being forced out of the workforce is certainly a problem, in and of itself, there are also long-term consequences to consider. What happens in the enterprise now will have ripple effects well into the future. 

There are many ways this can play out. In tech, in particular, having women’s voices heard is critical for what actually happens behind the scenes, which innovations are created, and the thinking behind technology, for instance, according to John Souza, CEO of Kingsland University.

“Tech jobs are projected to be the top source of wage growth in the U.S.,” Souza said. “There’s never been a more critical time to make the tech field accessible to women. Alarmingly, most technology innovations are informed by male perspectives. Bringing more women into tech jobs will foster a greater diversity of perspectives to innovations and to the industry overall, which will inevitably lead to improved offerings and forward progress.”

Also, seeing fewer women at work will create disadvantages for the women who remain. In previous TechRepublic reporting, Nancy Wang, founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product, stressed that “gender diversity really impacts the perception of career mobility.” A study showed that male-dominated workplaces led women to “lack of confidence in their promotion,” she continued. “Clearly, the more diverse your organization is, the more diverse leadership and representation you are going to have, which then instills more confidence in women and other minorities in your workplace that yes, they have that advancement path or a path upward.”

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

From a historical perspective, Susan Faludi, author of the groundbreaking 1991 title “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women,” sees the consequences as “disastrous.”

“Women have been set back decades,” Faludi said. 

Stephanie Coontz, historian and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, sees the situation as somewhat similar to WWII, although there are many differences. Back then, for instance, women were not quite as “essential to their family’s economies then as most working women are today,” she said. 

“This is uncharted territory,” Coontz said via email. “On the one hand, the exodus of women from the workplace will harm the welfare of many families, and even women who get back in the labor force will pay the price in terms of job experience, raises, promotions.”

A silver lining of the situation, however, could be that people will now wake up and see “the costs of failing to build an adequate infrastructure to support the majority of workers who have caregiving responsibilities,” Coontz believes. She compares the situation to when President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act Act, which was a major setback, she said, in terms of gender inequality and children’s security. 

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: How the crisis has created a new avenue for entrepreneurs

But there’s still a chance to make a course correction, she said. 

“If we wake up and do something about it, we could all be better off in the long run, as men have had to notice more of the invisible labor women do, and have stepped up their housework and childcare,” Coontz added. 

Faludi echoes this point, taking some comfort in the fact that women “aren’t going quietly.”

“This is not the back-to-the-home movement of the 1950s where American culture sold women a bill of goods about happy homemaking in the ‘burbs,” she said. “Women are angry and determined to fight for their rights. And that, even in a very dark time, gives me a ray of hope.”

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