The COVID-19 gender gap: How the global pandemic has forced women out of the workforce in droves

Working moms, in particular, have been saddled with the management of work, child care and education. Tech industry disparities become more pronounced as a "national emergency" unfolds in real time.

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Image: Andrii Yalanskyi, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Women and Work, part 1 of a 4-part series

It's been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world, radically shifting the way we work, causing massive unemployment, and creating anxiety for both employers and workers. And when a crisis hits, it tends to expose and exacerbate areas of existing inequality. In this case, it has become clear that women—and to a greater extent, minority women and mothers—have been hit hardest: Nearly 2.5 million women have been forced out of their jobs since March 2020, compared to 1.8 million men, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. And in industries where gender disparities already exist—such as in the tech world—the pandemic exposes and exacerbates already existing inequalities.

Vice President Kamala Harris called the displacement of women a "national emergency." And there has been a stark gender gap in the economic recovery, as well: According to the stats, during December 2020, women lost 156,000 jobs in the U.S., whereas men actually gained 16,000.

There are various explanations for the loss of women in the workforce. A frequently cited reason is that women have been vastly overrepresented in lower-paying work, which has taken a bigger hit during the pandemic.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

"Women are concentrated in sectors that suffer more from unemployment, such as hospitality, food service, retail," said Traci Fiatte, CEO of professional and commercial staffing at Randstad US. "Those jobs were the [most impacted], and if you look at the percentage of women in those jobs, they make up more than 75% of them." This explanation also helps show why minority women have also been more affected by COVID-19, because they are represented in these lower-income jobs in greater numbers. Latinas are suffering a 9.1% unemployment rate, followed by Black women (8.4%), and finally, white women at 5.7%, the data shows.

But this explanation is insufficient—if you look beyond low-paying jobs, at women in tech, for instance, there are still distinct gender gaps: Layoffs for women are more likely, particularly because women may be lower on the food chain.

"Gender disparity was present pre-COVID as well, because of the barriers and bottlenecks or getting hired or promoted," Fiatte stresses. "We're seeing the consequences of that."

And in terms of filling new jobs, "tech is gender-clustered towards men, pre-COVID," she said. "Women are adversely affected because the starting point was already disparate. So companies making a commitment to diversity is the only way the problem ever gets solved."

Women and girls need to get into STEM early, she stressed, and companies must "make a concerted effort to bring those diverse candidates in the door. And once they're in the door, they need to be part of the population considered for promotion." This kind of "diverse slating" is the "first step to closing the gap," because it helps women be considered for higher roles.

Fiatte helps provide reskilling and upskilling for employees—such as coding skills—to help them move into higher-paid jobs. "There are long-established barriers to acquiring new skills," she said. "We need to do reskilling and upskilling, especially in people of color, who haven't necessarily been able to make the leap into the more needed and technical positions that are available."

It's clear that flexible work is critical for anyone to survive working during the pandemic, as so many employees find themselves juggling multiple roles, adding tutor and caretaker to their new list of tasks. "It's contingent upon corporations to be flexible in the way they allow people to work," Fiatte stresses. In a digital, streaming world, a lot of this is possible. Tech jobs can be done in off-hours. And a flexible timetable also means international work can be more fluid, Fiatte points out. "You can do something for another company in your normal working hours."

Another important point is that flexibility doesn't just mean when work is done, Fiatte says, but how much work is required. "Most corporations are not great at finding ways for work to be done 10 or 15 or even 20 hours a week," she said.

Despite the flexible schedule that working from home can provide, nearly half of women recently surveyed said that the pandemic has hurt them professionally, according to TechRepublic reporting.

Joann S. Lublin, Wall Street Journal's former career columnist and author of "Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life," notes that working moms are facing huge barriers. "Until work is workable for working parents as a group, it won't be workable for any of us," she said. "This is not a 'she-cession'; this is a 'mom'-cession."

Fiatte also points out that caretaking—whether of children, spouses or elderly parents—is a burden that falls on women's shoulders, citing that 75% of the world's unpaid care still falls to women. "Women need more time. So that has to change," she said. "Men have to start picking that up. And companies have to understand that statistic and start behaving accordingly."

The always-on mentality is also a burden for women, and in particular, working mothers, Lublin notes. "While advances in technology have made it easier for this younger generation of executive mothers to advance, technology is also a curse. You sleep with your phone, by your bedside, always on."

One way women can combat this is to set limits with their employers—the way that one working mother Lublin interviewed did this, by telling her manager she would not be available during certain periods of the day. 

"Because she's an executive, the employer has accepted it," Lublin said. "Obviously, if you're not at that level, you may not have the power to make those requests."

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