In January 2020, women were in the slim majority in the workforce for the second time in U.S. history, accounting for just over 50% of the national workforce. But COVID-19 changed all that.
From February 2020 to February 2021, 2.4 million women separated from the labor force. In January 2021 alone, 275,000 women left the workforce. Additionally, 2 million women have stopped looking for work since the pandemic began, likely because of ongoing disruptions to school and child care.
Throughout history, women have fought for equal pay for equal work, promotions and reaching their work goals alongside men. Yet the pandemic has reminded us that women are the primary caretakers of our children and others in our family.
Given the enormous challenges mothers are facing at work and at home, many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers — more than fathers — are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps.
Estimates indicate the effects of the pandemic may set women’s progress in the workforce back half a century.
At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. Between 2015 and 2020, women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23% to 28%, and in the C-suite from 17% to 21%.
Yet the progress remains slow. Women hold just 24% of S&P 500 board seats, up only 3 percentage points since 2012, despite making up almost half of the U.S. workforce and driving approximately 80% of consumer spending.
Not surprisingly, senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out. And they are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19.
The possibility of losing so many senior-level women is alarming. The financial consequences could be hefty.
Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well represented at the top.
Senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture.
Women are more likely than men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity.
More than 50% of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared to about 40% of senior-level men.
In addition, women are more likely to mentor and sponsor other women.
If women leaders leave the workforce, potentially women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions.
The challenges facing companies right now are serious. The “broken rung” that has held millions of women back from being promoted to manager has not been repaired. •
Lauri Flanagan is president of Management Resource Group, a Quad Cities talent management firm.