As Americans gradually return to pre-pandemic activities, the economic recovery for women may yet be many years away.
An estimated two million women have left jobs during the pandemic, often to care for children or other family members. Women’s participation in the labor force has dropped to its lowest level since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center, with Black and Latina women impacted most.
Despite the bleak outlook for women’s workforce recovery in the short term, some thought leaders in Chicago are optimistic about the longer term future. WBEZ spoke with several local organization heads about how the pandemic has clarified four solutions that could fundamentally make work a more sustainable and equitable enterprise for women at all levels.
Policy changes from paid sick leave to child care subsidies
A report from The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, estimated that the lost wages of American women during the pandemic year could total $64.5 billion. That shared cost to the economy has shifted conversations around the need for policies that would ease the burden for working adults, said Felicia Davis, president and CEO of the Chicago Foundation for Women.
“People are talking about child care now as an issue for all of us to grapple with,” Davis said. “We have CEOs of companies talking about it, as well as our policymakers in D.C. and everywhere else.”
Davis said the same is true with conversations around paid sick leave, child care subsidies, student debt forgiveness and ending the subminimum tipped wage. While all workers might benefit from such policies, they would particularly elevate the circumstances of women, who disproportionately shoulder student loan debt and work in jobs that pay less and lack benefits.
In his address to a joint session of Congress last month, President Joe Biden outlined his American Families Plan, which incorporates many of these policy ideas. If Congress ultimately advances his proposal, it could fundamentally reshape the role that women play in the U.S. economy.
Reimagine hiring and promotion
Davis said employers can play an important role in reversing the loss of women in the workforce during the short term. Specifically, she is urging them to re-hire the women they laid off during the pandemic, at the same salaries where they were.
“Women who were already working had some economic gains, and if you hire a new person into the same role, one, obviously you’re not calling her back,” said Davis, “But two, you’re paying less to whoever that person is coming into that role.”
But that’s not all employers should do, said Gloria Castillo, director of Together We Rise: For an Equitable and Just Recovery, an initiative at the Chicago Community Trust.
She has been particularly concerned about the loss of women in hard-earned executive positions. Castillo said these roles can be filled again by women if employers change how they evaluate female candidates for open positions.
“Move to more of an assessment of potential and not just competencies,” she said.
Castillo said the data have long shown that when it comes to hiring and promotion, employers tend to assess men based on potential. But women are evaluated based on past performance. Switching to one standard could help elevate women into roles where they could shine.
“We know that there are differing standards for promoting women than promoting men,” she said. “So having some really objective criteria for evaluating potential, I think, is going to be critical.”
Resetting workplace culture and expectations
The pandemic has upended preconceived notions about where work can be done, and during which hours. Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, said incorporating that kind of flexibility into workplace culture will be key to supporting women who continue to disproportionately shoulder family care responsibilities alongside work.
“We’ve proven that we can work from home and work from home successfully. And the second piece is, and now what?” she said.
Norington-Reaves said employers should consider hybrid models, where workers sometimes go into the office and sometimes work from home.
Additionally, Norington-Reaves said the shared stresses of the pandemic made us all more aware of how much we and our colleagues are constantly juggling responsibilities. For many, the pandemic has forced us to reset the workplace expectations we have of our colleagues.
“I think that the powerbrokers, it’s incumbent on all of them to shift practices in a way that allows for people to live their whole, full lives,” said Norington-Reaves. “The reality is that we bring our whole selves to work, and work needs to see and treat people as human beings as opposed to workers.”
Personal practices: making space and exercising empathy
On a personal level, Felicia Davis has been reflecting on how her own dollars can help women regain their economic footing. Job loss, cuts in hours and the necessity to spend down savings have pulled the rug out from under even those who may previously have been making ends meet. This has been especially true in woman-dominated jobs that are traditionally tipped, such as restaurant servers, hair stylists, nail technicians, house cleaners, and more.
“I make a pledge, I’m not going to be the reason why another woman is paid inequitably,” said Davis. “I am going to tip generously. If I’m given a price, I’m going to pay the price for those services and value that service.”
Gloria Castillo said she also believes the social awakening of the past year to issues of racial injustice and gender inequality will also carry into the post-pandemic era. She said it’s clear that targeting efforts only toward helping women, or men, or parents, will not be enough.
“We’ve really got to take an intersectional approach when we’re designing our policies and programs,” Castillo said. “The considerations of women with disabilities, women of color, from the LGBTQ community — we’ve really got to be cognizant of, we’re now in a much more complex world where these intersectionalities matter, and the more empathetic we can be, the more we treat people with humanity, the better our outcomes are going to be.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.