2020 was a year of revealing. As societies were pressured by an event that - while long predicted - none were adequately prepared for, these pressures found the weakest points in our structures, and broke many of them. One of the breaking points was women and the labor force.
Globally, increasing women's participation in the workforce has been considered key to improving the economies of nations. An analysis by Harvard Business Review notes: "every 10% increase in women’s share of total employment is associated with real wage increases of nearly 8%. This is consistent with other analyses that have looked at female labor force participation across countries: as women’s share of the labor force increases by 10%, real wage growth increases by nearly 10%"
With Trends Like These, Who Needs Frenemies?
Unfortunately, while the data paints a clear picture of the benefits of removing barriers to 51% of the global population from attaining participation, these barriers are deeply embedded in global societies, systemic, and deeply resistant to change. As 2020 unfolded, families lost support structures many, if not all, of them had come to rely on. One of the main drivers of this disparity is the increased burden of unpaid care—shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids and parents in the household—which is disproportionately carried by women. Pre-COVID-19, women on average already did almost twice as much unpaid care compared to men. The COVID-19 crisis has added a very uneven addition onto an already unequal baseline. The affects are clear, even in the numbers - women, who make up just over a third of the workforce, nonetheless make up the majority of job losses in 2020.
“The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic”, stated a UN policy brief published in April 2020. “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.”
Recent projections based on economic scenarios modeled by McKinsey and Oxford Economics estimate that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024—two full years after a recovery for men. While unemployment numbers were roughly equal between men and women in February 2020, according to a McKinsey analysis of the Current Population Survey that is conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for women peaked at 15.8% in April 2020, more than 2 percentage points above that for men. In September, when schools resumed, many of them with remote learning, 80% of the 1.1 million people who exited the workforce were women. In the U.S. in December, women accounted for all of the net job losses, while men achieved some job gains. Today, unemployment for women remains 1.9 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level.
Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis,1 stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees.2 Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders. [McKinsey: Women in the Workforce 2020]
The High Costs of Loss
As noted at the start of the article, this is not simply an exercise in social justice. There are dollars and cents tied to this crisis. Leaving aside the potential gains lost by women slowing down their entry into the workforce, the McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector. The report goes on to estimate that "Conversely, taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario."
Moving beyond dollars (and admittedly, moving past a loss of $1-13 trillion is challenging), there are less material, yet significant, losses. As women have been pushed out of the workforce during 2020 there has been a collective loss of institutional knowledge and expertise. According to the Panopto Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report, 42 percent of institutional knowledge is unique to the individual.
The retention of the institutional knowledge or institutional memory is an important attribute in the recruitment and retention of employees. This is especially so for some highly skilled positions, such as in the technology fields. In these cases, the greater threat is the difficulty in quantifying and replacing the talent and knowledge these individuals had. While many managers worry about the level of turnover, the more important statistic should be the level and capacity of knowledge the people leaving possess. Organizations routinely sustain the loss of employees, but when those employees are highly skilled, possessing knowledge not readily replaceable, the organizations suffer. In 2020, this happened en masse, and it happened suddenly. While most employers were concerned with preserving institutional knowledge as the Boomers began mass retirements, this was still expected to be a (relatively) gradual process with time to perform knowledge transfer and succession planning. This was not that.
Towards an Uncertain Future
The reality is that the impact of Covid, and our societies' general inability to handle those impacts, have not only exposes our flaws but done real and lasting damage. And the recovery to pre-pandemic levels may be measured in terms of years, if not decades. In a recent article on NBC, Stephanie Aaronson, director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution, says that when people have to shift industries or occupations, “those transitions take a lot longer.” Women may also lose their employment networks and need to undergo new training. “As the economy improves and as schools reopen, it could just take them longer to find employment,” she said. “They might find out that the jobs that they're eligible for pay lower wages than their previous jobs and that will be discouraging. So, I think it is possible in that regard also that women could just end up with sort of persistently lower labor force participation than what we saw prior to the recession.”
Perceptyx surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. employees about their workplaces and their preferences for returning to a physical work environment. Key findings include:
To address this, leaders across every aspect of business will need to calculate if the costs of change outweigh the costs of inaction. The numbers seem clear that the do not.
Sign up to get our monthly newsletter and updates about RNN.