Why keeping women employed during COVID-19 boosts business and the economy

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Labor participation for women has cratered to the lowest level in a decade, as rehiring rates lag behind their male counterparts — the latest key indicator to limit womens’ career gains in the workplace.

The so-called “she-cession” is notable as key sectors such as hospitality and healthcare are dominated by women, and those industries are seeing a slower rebound than those populated by men, like tech and construction.

Read more: Coronavirus is pushing the gender gap even wider for working moms

“This isn't just an issue for women. It's an issue for families and it's an issue for the government and economies because it drives GDP,” says Jennifer Reynolds, a former investment banker and CEO of Toronto Finance International.

In August, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 8.4%, down from a pandemic-high of 14.7% in April. Women account for 55% of unemployed Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While women earned significant gains in workplace participation over the last decade, that progress is at risk of being eliminated, Reynolds says.

“The longer women are out of the workforce, the harder it is to actually get back in,” she says. “Every month and year you're out of the workforce contributes to increasing the wage gap between others who have been in the workforce.”

As women remain unemployed or choose to stay out of the workforce, the long-and short-term implications will be staggering.

“It's an economic issue right away, because women are key contributors to household income. So not having any income for your family — that hurts,” Reynolds says. “We're going to see the family finances deteriorate in the immediate term.”

Child care is emerging as a massive challenge for women in particular during the pandemic. Working mothers now spend 65 hours per week on child care and household duties — 15 hours more per week than fathers, according to a survey by the Boston Consulting Group.

Read more: Why working parents need extra support during coronavirus

“There are deeply ingrained gender roles within many households, and that leads into the issue where women are feeling the brunt of this,” says Lindsey Michaelides, founder of Strongsuit, a tech-based concierge service for working parents. “There's a real risk that we take a huge step back in this moment in time when it comes to gender dynamics, both in the workplace and at home.”

Getting women back to work requires long-term thinking about the types of jobs women work in, Reynolds says. Opening opportunities for women in STEM-fields will not only help close the gap, but provide more stable employment opportunities in the future.

“Women have been 50% of university graduates for 30 years now, and yet we're not seeing the rewards that we should've seen for that education, in terms of getting them into higher paying jobs,” Reynolds says. “Women are often in jobs which aren’t as high paying as men, so we need to think about why that is, and how to get women into STEM-type careers, like technology, engineering, and math, where those lead to jobs which are higher paying.”

In the short-term, employers should be more flexible and empathetic to working women to keep them in the workforce, Michaelides says.

“Flexibility is really key,” she says. “What are some of the big scheduling needs that you now have within your household? What are some of the big pain points? Then talk about how to manage that schedule with the needs of your family and the needs of the business. It's hard work, and it takes some creativity and teamwork.”

To support women re-entering the workforce, employers may have to “think outside the box” when it comes to re-hiring — and not overlook female applicants with breaks in their work history, Reynolds says.

“If there's a time gap, and it's an obvious one on a resume, it's probably for child care,” Reynolds says. “But that doesn't mean that the person's forgotten everything they knew before.”

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Gender issues Economic indicators Coronavirus Employment data Workforce management Work from home