How COVID-19 Is Setting Working Women Back


From the aclu. This is at liberty. I'm your host molly kaplan in early october. The united states labor department reported that women were leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men and a few months earlier a report from mckinsey global. Reveal that wall. Women made up just forty. Three percent of the workforce they hit bourne fifty six percent of covid related job losses. This data and much more lead one news source to call this moment. America's first female recession. What exactly is going on. Why are women and leaving jobs more than men during this global pandemic and what can we do about it here to answer. These questions is colleen. Amerman enrollment is director of harvard. Business school's gender initiative. She's also the co author of an upcoming book. Glass half broken shattering the barriers that still hold women back at work colleen. Welcome to the podcast and thank you so much for joining us. Thank you happy to be here. I want to start with the big picture here. Back in may of year in spite of huge growth in unemployment and a lot of uncertainty about the pandemic. There was some optimism about ways in which normalizing working from home and more flexible hours might actually benefit women. But even back in. May you skeptical. You said of a paper making these claims wall. We share the authors hope. We aren't convinced that the sudden expansion of remote work will end up benefiting women now as we speak. You seem to have been right to doubt those claims. And as i mentioned in one article called this loss of women in the workforce first female recession clean. What have we seen happen to. Women in the workforce over the last several months in a sort of big picture way while we've seen really massive from the labor force ryan me nuts with all the data and statistics are pointing to the top line right. We're seeing women exit. Jobs reduce their work hours even when they're able to stay in jobs higher rates than men. And then i think we're also seeing subtler things. The latest women in the workplace study from mckenzie in and just came out a week or two ago and one of the things that i noticed there was. I haven't seen covered elsewhere that they had a finding that mothers are much more likely than fathers to worry about how their performance is being viewed negatively because of their needs to be caregiving. Right which both mothers and fathers are in a situation of needing to do this caregiving. That is a much higher level much more burdensome than it typically was but if you are concerned about how your performance is being viewed. Maybe you're not getting that positive feedback. Which then kind of feeds into again. These exits from the labor force in women making decisions. That they're either gonna really ratchet back. Their careers are setback altogether and just to clarify when we talk about this gender gap. Are we talking. Mostly about a gap in the mothers are working. Is that the population that this is affecting the most. Yeah i mean. I think that's definitely the huge phenomenon that we're seeing here right is. It's really when we say women exiting from the labor force or really talking about mothers right. And i think it's brought that up because i think it's really important to note that in i mean i do think however it's also important to note that there are ways that the shift to remote work in the shift of virtual work in particular can be problematic for women in general if companies managers aren't really thoughtful about what it means to create an inclusive work environment in virtual space. That's actually i think not just relevant to mothers but in terms of exits from the labor force and reduction in work hours. Were definitely seeing that among mothers in particular. I'm curious what exactly for non mothers are. We talking about in terms of what you just mentioned about the remote work environment being more in subways. Difficult for women than for men. Well this is something that we talked about a bit in this article. Back in harvard business review in may that my arthur and i wrote things that we talked a bit about some of these phenomena related to caregiving but then also wanted to point out. There's other things that are likely going on right. So if you think about a virtual work environment there are ways in which exclusion can really become. Friction lists as compared to a real world environment. And so i think that again like hard conversations that are happening sort of like the gulf cub only accepting men and then those business deals happening over some golf on the weekend. Some of the same trends are happening on zoom chats or wherever in the private spaces. Exactly you can see that. I think there's a real danger around that if companies managers aren't thoughtful about preventing that. Because exactly right you can still create these sort of exclusive spaces or these insular spaces where people are connecting to people who look like them. And so if you're talking about the people in power that's mostly other white straight men and again. I think one thing. That's really tricky about it. Is that in the previous where we lived in often. I was at least somewhat visible to people who are being excluded right so you could actually see the three guys walk off to the side conversation or arrive at a meeting and realize oh. There was a meeting happening before this meeting right. That are actually quite well. Known and well documented in people talk about but what we were worried about mike. Hawthorne started talking about this really before we even read the article kind of in the early days of the pandemic is that think about all of the ways in which that becomes even easier even unintentionally right. So if you think about who are you inviting to that pre meeting or who were you kind of engaging aside chat with and of course there's ways in which this can be intentional on explicit and people can exclude deliberately but i think a lot of times. People just aren't thinking about it especially in when you're in crisis mode and you're thinking about can need to make decisions quickly. Who can i rely on again off. That's going to be the people that look like you right which is not necessarily or go to the same conclusion right. I mean this. Is you know people do this. Natural phenomenon that social scientists call him awfully were drawn to others. Who are like us especially on really salient dimensions. Things that are important in our society gender and race are various alien. The society we live. So it's that's in itself is not in various. It's not that we're bad people because fully something that we engage in right but if you think about the downstream effects of that if you are needing to make quick decisions you know you're in a difficult time and you're always kind of referring back to the same people who as you just said not only might look like you also make think like you have the same kind of background that you do be relying on some of the same assumptions you can see. That's problematic host of reasons and what's also worth noting is that as is too often true. These challenges and the loss of women in the workforce has not been spread equally. It seems like some women are more impacted than others. Can you talk more specifically about populations within the sort of larger structure of women who have been disproportionately affected. Yea again women are over represented particularly black women latinas in some of the lower wage sectors. Right so there's going to be a bigger impacts there and it is the case you know all the most data that i've seen on the september jobs report that the unemployment rate is higher for women of color as compared to white women. Well what we're seeing. A pandemic is really just both reveal an entrenched some of these inequalities both along racial and gender lines and then of course women of color being at the intersection of being marginalized spy gender and race are going to be the hardest head and then it seems like it in. Tell me if. I'm wrong here that if you're undocumented if you're an undocumented woman that on top of having this workforce disparity being worse for women of color that if you are an undocumented woman you also may not have access to unemployment you may not be allowed to apply for. You also may be too scared to put your name into an official system even in states that do allow you. I just imagined that. That is also a factor. Here absolutely right. I mean i think we heard a lot about people. In families with documented breadwinners knobs receiving stimulus funds. Right so many many people in our economy right that are in fact paying taxes paying into the system not being able to access even though supports as limited as they were set up either by federal or state government. So i mean. I think that's exactly right. Is affecting everyone in different ways depending on where they are across the spectrum and i think that's why actually it's quite important to look at what's happening to higher earning highly educated women right sometimes. It's easy to be dismissive of that and to say well. These are women that in fact are already very privileged. They're not sort of suffering in the same ways that women in lower earnings sectors of the economy. Are you know why should we care about them. Why should we care so much. And i think right. It's important to knowledge that it is quite different right. If you are. In a dual career family both had professional jobs. It's a different set of kind of suffering in different set of circumstances facing but i think what it reveals is that the sort of entrenched nature of gender inequality right is having these really delete serious effects even on women who are very privileged like our very advantaged right have the benefit of maybe an elite education. Even you know who have the benefit of working for a company that her by supports right but there in fact still exiting the labor force these really alarming rates. I think that's actually quite important to acknowledge. Because i think it points up the way that gender inequality really is to be such a profound problem. So if i understand correctly it's important. Because if a population that already has more buffers than maybe other populations still impacted in such an incredibly significant way then we truly need to stop and pay attention and look at. What's going on. does that. Sum it up yes basically assets while put right even those folks right with a lot of these are still feeling these effects written. It's going to have long term consequences again on the women in leadership the representation of women in these high powered high paying highly influential field. So i think that that is something that has really profound effects on the economy as a whole on society as a whole so yes. That's exactly what i'm saying. And i'm curious to dig into the data a little bit more. It seems like we have two trends. That are happening. During the pandemic some people who've been losing their jobs and others have been leaving their jobs but in both cases it's exponentially more for women than for men and if we focus for one minute on the people who are being laid off why were women hit particularly hard at the beginning of the recession wire women being laid off in higher numbers. Well i think there's a lot of reasons reyes we've talked about the fact that women have been overrepresented in a lot of the industries that have been particularly hard head right and i think from what i understand. A huge factor. I think that there's other things at play. When you look beyond those industries and in particular again when you go back to the caregiving burden right. So if you're a company. Especially if you're thinking. I would argue in a very short term fashion about what you need from your employees and not really thinking long term. You know it may seem like an easy decision to lay off the people who have that higher caregiving burden and who who are not necessarily able to spend as many hours working or maybe that's a belief that you have about them. I mean i think what we also get into here is. We don't always make decisions based on what's happening or based on data even when we kind of think we do or kind of assume that we are a riot so we know a lot from research about the ways that mothers in particular are viewed in the workforce and the kinds of impact. That has on how they're treated right and the relationship between kind of by sees about women's mother's commitment to work and how that impacts whether they're hired whether they're promoted how much they're paid. I don't know that research has been done specifically on layoffs. But i would argue that. A lot of the same mechanisms are at play there so i think that that is another layer. That's coming in and one thing. I think you noted was that as opposed to the stigma women have a sort of balancing a caregiving needs with their jobs. The inverse is true. For fathers right that. There's actually a sort of soft and fuzzy social benefit to colleagues or manager seeing fathers tending to caregiving needs. Is that yeah. Yes that is right. That's also documented in the research is usually referred to as the fatherhood bonus or the daddy bonus as post to the motherhood penalty. Which is what. I was just referring to so the motherhood penalty which is quite well documented. Is this outcome of women with children being less likely to be hired being paid less than just serving viewed more negatively as it pertains to work compared to women without children are compared to men in general whether regardless of whether the men have kids or not and the important thing about that is that we do know the causal mechanism in. It's because of a belief that mothers are less committed to work than those other groups right. So in comparison research has also documented. Something called the fatherhood bonus which is basically the inverse right. Is that in a lot of times. Men with children get actually an earnings thump and certainly are also viewed more favorably right in this. That's complicated sometimes. Can be stigma around taking advantage of parental leave or flexibility. That can happen to both women and men so it's not sort of it's complicated phenomenon. It does depend on sort of contextual factors in the organization but by in large men are not sort of being dinged so to speak for their parenthood status. Right and you can think about this just even in terms of kind of inequality and way like day to day right so if you think about you have two parents each on a different zoom. Call for some important meeting. The kid runs into the room needing something or you know right. The bbc interview that went viral a couple years ago where there was a man on a live interview and his kids flew in and the commentator thought. It was really funny and everybody was like. Oh i relate relate right that's a classic example that a course now everyone's saying yes. It's happened to of us now. You know he was a trailblazer. You think about these two exact same scenes happening one with a woman in one with a man rate. And i think everything that we know from research and i think a lot of if we're honest sort of just about even our own implicit bias sees would admit that we probably would react differently rights and any other people comments on this all the time you know. Sometimes you see. Dad's the parker whatever and there's this sort of. Oh that's great. You spending time with his kids and it's expected for women right so it's kind of coming from some of these same underlined by issues but again in a virtual. You can see how that really could get problematic when maybe for your meal. Peer whose kids running in needing a band aid or you know needing to help with getting on their online school and everyone sort of warmly disposed to him. The same thing might happen to you and you may not receive that same kind of response right and then again. I think women are very aware of this. Which is why. I wasn't too surprised to see that latest. Mackenzie lean data. That women are actually quite worried about that. Worried about how the need for caregiving. They are that stress. They're under right. Now is impacting how their feud at work and that seems to say really nicely into the other trend that we're seeing where women are leaving the workforce in droves. The numbers that i read is that in september eight hundred sixty five thousand women over twenty dropped out of the workforce in the us and just two hundred sixteen thousand men in the same age group dropped out according to the us labor department. Is that connected to some of what we were just talking about about. Women being impart more conscious of the sort of dual needs and feeling like they're failing at work and they can't do both. Yeah absolutely. I think we're talking about here and i think this is also kind of again. Not just for women white collar settings but a lot of working. Mothers in general is forced choice right. I mean calling it a choice to leave the workforce. I think often does a real disservice to the to the women who are making those decisions right because it's really not really made choice. It's often not what they wanna do. They feel forced into it and they feel forced into it. You know. I think fundamentally in this country we conceive of and we approach childcare not as infrastructure that enables our economy to function which is what it is but as kind of an individual problem for families which really in effect means mothers to saw right so whether this is affecting women kind of lower on the economic ladder who just don't have access at all to childcare at certain points in so it's really very much a forced choice in terms of we don't have publicly available supports for them right so they are in that situation. But what you see is even higher earning women who are sensibly be able to afford it feel kind of backed into a corner with as you said may be feeling like they're failing at work and at home right which of course is an incredibly kind of psychically draining experience and often. I think families are kind of forced into making these short-term calculations about what makes sense right economically and if you've got a higher earner a lower earner in the family and you don't feel like you can manage the available childcare. That's out there than yes. It makes sense in the short term to the lower honors career right and also just an implicit point. There is that there's a gender pay gap so that in many families not because of the nature of your work but simply because of the existing gender pay gap which is worse for women of color. You are making less than your partner right right. We know that significant time labor force dramatically reduces your lifetime earnings. It's really hard to get back in. If you've been fully completely out for a long period of time and i think what we don't often talk about is the way that women sort of really feel that pressure to make those short term decisions that can feel like the emergency situation even before the pandemic. This was something you know that women experienced right and they're having to make decisions that have these really long term consequences for their careers in their lives that are very hard to overcome and where we kind of pushed them again. Back into a corner to make these decisions that you know ultimately disadvantage them for the long term. I want to dig in further into a little bit before the pandemic because the context that we entered the pandemic in as far as women in the workforce goes is confusing to me. Because i read that at the end of two thousand nineteen for just the second time. American woman held over half of all payroll jobs and this seems like really good news like we were making huge strides since the nineteen seventies. The entrance of women in the workforce and the economy was growing as a result of this increased presence. Why was it that there was this vulnerability. i mean clearly. There was a crack that got split open into a gaping hole but what was going on underneath the surface because the figure of women consisting of more than half the workforce seems like an enormous stride in the direction of progress. Yeah absolutely and i think One thing that is really important to realize about sort of the state state of women in the workplace right over the past as you said like since the nineteen seventies you know when we really started to see discrimination become illegal a lot of excess combination used to be perfectly legal and not really hard to change in the nineteen sixties seventies certainly even into the nineteen eighty s and nineteen eighty s. Sexual harassment rate was became something that actually was illegal. Something that someone can bring a claim about and so we've seen tremendous progress right since that time we've also seen women's access to education increased dramatically array. Which is a huge piece of that when women were kind of restricted in terms of their educational opportunities obviously that had a direct impact on their entry into the labor force in where they go in the labor force. I mean is certainly. there's been tremendous progress. But i think what's important to note also that in terms of the proportion of women in positions of power leadership that's remained pretty flat since the nineteen nineties. So you are seeing women enter but women are either not ascending. And they're getting stuck or they're getting pushed out rich as we just talked about. Was a phenomenon already happening. I wanted to dig in more into the long term consequences here. It's not like when the pandemic ends like great. Everybody goes back to work. It'll be just like it was short term. Decisions have really long term consequences for people's careers but also for the economy at large women in the workforce has a huge impact on the economy. And i was wondering if you could say more about that yes. It's a really great question. And i think it's often one we don't we don't frame it that way off enough rice we talk about. Oh this is terrible for women you know. This is gonna set back women's private. You know which is true right. I mean i share those same feelings right in over the past month. Seeing this unfold feel about same anxiety in the all the way that this is going to impact kind of the status of women. But i think we often don't frame it around doing our organizations in our society and our economy right. i mean i view it as it's a talent drain. So if you're an organization that sends a message ultimately through not supporting working parents primarily working mothers through this time period your organization that is probably going to be seen as less desirable for women in general to work out right. You're going to probably have who are less engaged. You are also just again missing out on the talents of a really significant part of the population. Oh i was gonna say it also seems like diversity isn't for diversity sake. You're also missing out. I think to the talent point. You're also missing out on a larger range of perspectives. That could potentially help you with solutions. Problem solvings in ways that if you were working population is too homogenous are going to miss out on exactly yes. That's exactly right. And that's what i was heading. It's not simply in an absolute sense right. You have a smaller pool. You only really are recruiting. Men and women without children. Say were primarily matt right. I mean that's true and you can see how just sort of a basic level that doesn't seem logical but absolutely if you are really constructing a company that modernist you're exactly right. You're missing out on the benefits. Not only of kind of individual people but we do know from lots of research that more diverse groups groups that are more diverse in terms of race and gender in particular tend to be problem solving more creative just the experience of working with in kind of sustained substantive not superficial but really tackling hard problems together way working with people who are different from you just that alone leads to better creativity and problem solving and better group cohesion. It's absolutely the case that if we are heading toward a place where we're going to have a more company more homogeneous workforce when it comes to gender that's really not gonna benefit us either at the individual company level or broadly in terms of the economy. And it seems like if we had more women in power at the highest levels of jobs and it's the ceo cfo levels. That maybe this would be more of a conversation. Like maybe the shifting the notion of how daycare and childcare was conceived of as a structural need rather than the nuclear families problem. Maybe there will be some change there. Yeah i would hope so. Although i think certainly what i think more and more fathers not only are aware of this. I think have always been aware of this but rights for feel more empowered to speak up about it. And you have people like out so right talking writings op. Eds about why it was so important for him to take paternity right in saying we need actually men to step up and say this matters for us just as much. We've sort of been silenced in. It hasn't really been kind of culturally permissible for us to talk about but this is important for us to site absolutely. I think it would be great to to have this conversation. Be again less in the zone of let's support or how women in war in the zone of we need this kind of infrastructure for our companies to thrive in flourish particularly in a global economy. When many other developed economies actually do some of these infrastructural supports in place. And that's not something that. Us companies can rely on. So that's what i would say sort of about the public policy level. Which i think is critical. It's not my area of expertise. So i don't wanna give too many recommendations. I my colleagues over at the kennedy school. I think tons of great research probably recommendations about what our elected officials kind of what we as a society should be doing. I do think though even not said even in the context we don't have that public infrastructure that there are things companies can do absolutely. We talked about this a little bit in the hbo article from a few months back. And i think a lot of it does come down to education. So i think it's really important for managers to just know about things like the motherhood penalty and those biases right. I think the more that we can do at the organizational level for everyone particularly everyone who manages people to be educated about that right and so just simply to know that that's in play to educate people about that in a way that you know it's not about shaming them or about saying. You must have these by season so you're about manager. No it's just about saying these very powerful cultural norms. They affect all affect our judgement. Let's be aware of them. And then let's use that to motivate ourselves to apply objective criteria and objective standards so that we're not falling back on those biases so that's kind of one thing that i would say is the more organizations can do to educate managers about the ways that women in particular mothers are treated differently and then sort of empowered them and make them accountable for overcoming that right so that sort of baseline and then. I think you've got to just get really clear on what your priorities are so that you can actually make those kinds of objective judgments right especially in a time of crisis or a time. When things are chaotic is easy again just to kind of fall back on what feels right. What feels like a good strong performance as you think. Okay well. i keep getting emails from joe all hours of the day and night. I've noticed joe is. I'm not getting as many emails from her or i know. She's not actually working as many hours and often we as managers and i manage people myself right. It takes more effort sometimes to stop and think about what are the evaluation criteria. I've i've applying right. So that's like a very easy trap. We fall into right of just like this person is performing at a higher level just because they're more visible asking questions and sometimes that might be true right. Those things can be clues but it's really important that we don't just rely on kind of that. The data that's most available in easiest on the surface. Right we really need to actually think about how can we measure performance in a way. That's fair and objective. So in fact if you look at jilin joe's productivity it may very well be the case that joe is not any less productive right. She's just may simply be working in a different way and that was true before the pandemic right and this is again. Not just you know as it pertains to gender but you know we've really got to get managers comfortable with recognizing the value that people bring through different styles right and not serve applying for a rubric of being a high performer. Means doing everything exactly like this. One archetype that just so happens to be white and male. So that's kind of another thing getting really clear about your priorities and getting really clear about how you're evaluating people and what you're evaluating them on right not just on. How many emails day you get from that. Even though that kind of may just be at top of mind and may feel like well they must be. They must be kind of my hardest working employees. So i mean those are two things i would say kind of at the manager level and then i are sort of at the level of how companies should the expectations companies should have managers right to sort of be educated about these biopsies and to put in place these thoughtful and objective criteria. But then also i think companies need to empower managers to work with their employees at this really challenging time right away that makes sense for everybody. So if managers aren't empowered to creatively think about how one of their reports can manage their work at home responsibilities than it makes it very hard to judge. People objectively if managers aren't empowered to think about okay. Well here's what we need to get done. Here's what this employee is dealing with. How can i create the conditions that enable them to succeed if manager. A sort of are forced into treating everyone in a cookie cutter model. And don't have that sort of don't have that sort of power to really have their is focus on the goal and how to enable their team to meet that goal. It's going to be much harder for them. That feels like a shift to more long term thinking rather than having the short sighted thinking. Yes i would argue exactly what. You're saying that. If we demonstrate to joe right that she sal you that we're thinking about her future at the company and we're really trying to think about how we can be as fair as possible during this really difficult time. It's a lot more likely that djilas going to really put in kind of equal or more effort on thinking about how she can continue to contribute and stay engaged again. You know the house the effect of gills able to feel the stronger incentives to stay in her career. Just full stop right if she's has opportunities to continue to do fulfilling unsatisfying work. I mean again. There's lots of research that shows that differences in kind of exits from companies and jobs between men and women really are about the fact that women see fewer opportunities for advancement in fewer opportunities for satisfying work. Not often is what really is driving. Women's exits from the labor force very much pre pandemic and i would argue also just getting intensified now right. It's hard to be fulfilled at work right when you feel stressed and then on top of that you sort of feel demoralize and support at work right. You don't feel like you're getting the assignments you don't feel like you're not feel like your job is important in satisfying meaningful well. That doesn't really encourage you to stay connected to it. Jill wherever you are. we've got your back. We can figure this out. It seems like one other area that if you're an individual if you're not in the managerial space that everyone can contribute to is also talking about this. I think the if you can call the silver lining of what we're seeing with these numbers that we're talking about it. We're talking about some of the really deep underlying social norms that are contributing to women being shuffled out of the workforce and with or without a pandemic there might have been other things that trip this up and sort of showed deep fissures and it seems like we need to keep talking about it. Yeah absolutely. I mean. I agree with you. I think about the same way. They're sort of a silver lining to the fact that this is something. I'm now seeing so many articles about so many of the great researchers whose work. I've looked for years. You know. I'm seeing quoted more and more right. The studies about the outcomes already seeing women exiting the labor force or lower ours or lower productivity. You are getting a lot of media coverage and i think this is definitely from what i've heard a big conversation in companies you. I've done some webinars kind of presentations for different companies. Since putting out that article. Because i think it is top of mind for people right in. There is a sense of urgency. So i think that's absolutely true. So i am encouraged by that. And i do think there's a huge opportunity for men to be speaking out about this. You know as i was saying before. I think in general that's true. That's there's a chapter in the book. Day mentioned in the intro that coming out in the spring where we talk about the role of men and i relieve you that as just a critical lever kind of under tapped resource advancing gender equity and gender equality is the role of men. And so i think there's a huge opportunity for men not just certainly those in leadership see ios et cetera. But also right just in our everyday lives from to be talking about the fact that these impacts of the pandemic are affecting families right and there are affecting mothers and fathers and i think there's been less cultural space for men to talk about the effects on them and i think that we really do need to shift that and that's an opportunity to change the conversation again as you said sort of bring it to the top of everyone's mind how important this is and it's not just something that sort of a problem for mothers that we can push over to the corner absolutely. We'll colleen thank you so much for joining us. This was really great. I am so appreciative. And i just loved the research that led to this. So i'm appreciative. The work that you've done as well thank great to be here. Thanks so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode you can subscribe to at liberty wherever you get your podcast and rate and review the show. We really appreciate your feedback and until next week stay strong.

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