Contributor: Companies Can’t Afford a She-cession

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As working women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, solutions to address what has been coined a “she-cession” include targeted communications, flexible work schedules, and increased education/tutoring resources.

The pandemic has impacted every industry and every demographic over the last year. However, working women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, leading to what has been coined a “she-cession.”

Research by the McKinsey Global Institute released in the summer of 2020 found women’s jobs were almost twice as vulnerable to the pandemic than were men's jobs. Without a steady income, women were more at risk for lack of or poorer health care, financial instability, and food insecurity for themselves and their families. Specific groups of working women are also affected more than others: working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women. It is not an issue specific to one socioeconomic group.

If not addressed, the financial impact will be significant–not only to women at risk, but to the organizations that employ them. The global GDP in 2030 is projected to be $1 trillion below where it would have been if COVID-19 had affected men and women equally in their respective areas of employment.

Profitability is 25% more likely to be above average in companies with gender diversity in their leadership teams. At companies where more than 30% of their executives are women, they outperform companies with fewer female executives by as much as 48%. Understanding the gaps that need to be addressed and the financial reasons for making those changes can create healthier and more productive working environments.

Prior to the pandemic, there were already multiple gaps. Gender pay inequity, although there have been improvements from 30 years ago, has still not been addressed and resolved. This has meant that many lower-paid working women were far less likely to have adequate emergency funds in place going into the pandemic. Because schools and daycares for both children and aging adults had been shut down, many women took on working from home and being full-time caregivers with little support.

Inflexible work cultures also led to some women having to choose between their jobs and caring for loved ones. In the United States, mothers are the primary breadwinners in 50% of US households and yet consistently make less than their male counterparts Study 2021. There is also the long-term impact to retirement savings that increases the chances of these women falling below the poverty line in retirement.

The lack of support for working caregivers is a core issue, particularly because we have an aging workforce in the United States. More women than men are the primary caregiver to older adults and often work 20-plus hours or more a week doing unpaid caregiving tasks outside of their regular jobs, according to AARP's most recent caregiving study.

The latest Marketplace-Edison Research Poll from October of 2020 found a large gender disparity in who is primarily responsible for supervising children’s remote school during the pandemic: 63% of women said they were overseeing lessons vs 29% of men. Many of these women are caring for both children younger than 18 years and aging adults.

Although often called the “sandwich generation,” these caregivers are stuck in a vice between having the energy and resources to both have a career and provide quality caregiving. By not recognizing the inequity in caregiving responsibilities, organizations often don’t have the right resources or policies in place to retain top female talent.

Some Midwest Business Group on Health member organizations have shared that childcare, elder care, and even care of a spouse or significant other are among the top challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue cuts across many industries. As we move into the next normal, there are now more leaders looking for solutions to better support caregivers and specifically address this issue that has contributed to the she-cession.

There is a growing understanding of the financial benefit to creating solutions that work for their industry and specific work culture. With 1 of every 4 employees in the United States being 55 or older, there is no doubt that addressing caregiving barriers in the workplace will benefit everyone. And there are some organizations that have already taken steps forward with the understanding that there may need to be future iterations to refine what will work best for their organization.

Some of the unique ways businesses are addressing some of these pain points:

  • Tutoring services that include 5 hours a month of on-demand paid tutoring that can be scheduled for a 30-minute tutoring session or simply asking a homework question via a chat feature; the service provides support for children in kindergarten through college
  • Targeted communications that enable organizations to take a more focused approach about what their current vendors provide and how that can meet some of their employees' biggest pain points; his can be done to promote more engagement with an employee assistance program provider, as an example
  • Facilitated webinars and/or Zoom meetings for caregivers, targeted by age groups, that allow for interactive chat; the best-in-class use a customized approach led by facilitators with caregiving expertise and strong health and wellness coaching backgrounds
  • Flexible work schedules for all genders that allow men to share in some of the caregiving burden that is falling on their spouses/partners

There are also innovative ways to address caring for children and aging adults while working from home. If an employee is working from home and the children are homeschooled, internet capacity may be cut in half. Providing a way to boost capacity could be a good investment since it can directly impact the employee’s ability to perform well on the job.

Working from home where many employees may have limited privacy in their workspace has offered a new perspective. Prior to the pandemic, it may have been frowned upon to have a child or even a pet come into a room. The integration of work and home life has made it more acceptable and team members are viewed in a more holistic way. Many companies are likely to continue to allow their employees flexibility to operate in ways that best support a healthier work/life integration.

The intersection of caregiving resources and the health and well-being of that working caregiver must also be addressed. It’s not just a time crunch issue for caregivers, it’s a clearly documented health issue. Women react to stressors differently than male counterparts and a recently published study in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health highlighted these differences. Women have reported more sleep troubles and symptoms of anxiety and depression, in addition to greater empathy for others, during the pandemic.

Although many of the corporate workplace wellness offerings address these issues, it is often not viewed through a gender or diversity lens. Understanding these differences can open opportunities to better refine the programs and services being provided to working women to help them get and stay more resilient through future challenges and crises.

As with any workplace health and well-being initiatives, making it specific to the industry, culture, and an organization’s goals will make what is put in place more successful.

Because each work situation is different and may change with whatever next normal is on the horizon, the best way to start to address keeping women in the workplace or getting them back into the workplace is taking the time to provide solutions, policies, and services that best meet your company’s unique needs. One solution could be to allow employees to go part time for a limited amount of time without losing benefits if there are not good daycare options. Another idea idea that has been around for decades may also be a good option: job sharing.

Leadership at every company should, by now, understand that bringing in and keeping top female talent at all levels can have a big financial benefit. If an organization can show improvement in attracting and retaining women from all backgrounds, it can be a great recruiting story and show that there is a genuine focus by the company’s leadership to close the gender gap in the workplace.

No organization can plan for every challenge that may come up, but they can more strategically build in tools, resources, training, and education that can make teams more resilient and help retain those that are most impacted by the next crisis. While the pandemic was and continues to be a challenge, it also opens up opportunities to provide a path toward understanding gender differences and building more intentionally inclusive work cultures.