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Reopening the Workplace: A Gender Perspective on the Economic Fallout of COVID-19

The COVID-19 coronavirus doesn't discriminate between men and women, but the same can't be said of the pandemic's impact on the U.S. workforce.

Traditional support for women at work has been drastically reduced, if not eliminated, during the crisis. Women have had to reorient to working from home while balancing family responsibilities, including childcare and home schooling. Admittedly, both male and female parents have had to face these challenges, but women have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden.

Over the past 25 years, legislators and employers have implemented measures to assist the growing percentage of working women. By exploring early childhood programs, daycare, flexible hours, and job sharing these efforts have encouraged co-parenting, offered assistance to single parents, and created greater work-life balance. The COVID-19 outbreak eliminated these supports, and it's anyone's guess when these efforts will resume.

Because there has been different treatment of women in this pandemic, we must ensure different outcomes. As workplaces and non-essential businesses across the U.S. look to reopen, women will need support from employers and the government in new ways that reflect the ever-changing work environment. The expectations of both employees and employers will be challenged as we must confront and reconcile a rebalancing of priorities.

On the current trajectory, women who can remain in the workplace will likely be forced to do so without external assistance for homecare and childcare, including extended family, religious communities, schools, and in-home care providers. Currently, some women in the medical professions, food processing plants, and other essential businesses are already experiencing double and triple work shifts, at home and on the job. Such professional juggling will become common across the work spectrum as businesses and economies reopen.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics research conducted in March and April 2020 shows women have been fighting on and behind the frontlines of the pandemic in greater numbers than men. This makes sense because many of the essential businesses are in female-dominated industries, and women, more than men, are responsible for sustaining their households. This fight is taking its toll on their professional productivity and their wellbeing. According to an April 2020 LeanIn.org/SurveyMonkey study, one in four women reported having physical and mental symptoms of stress and anxiety as compared with one in ten men. In the same survey, 31 percent of women with full-time jobs said they were overloaded at both work and home, as compared with 13 percent of men. This situation is simply not sustainable.

Moreover, job protection for women is more vulnerable as the economy suffers one of its worst beatings since the Great Depression, and predominantly male managers often target women for layoffs. Statistically, because women also filled the majority of new jobs in the last two years, they may be first in line to be terminated. The numbers bear this out: 55 percent of Americans laid off in March and April were women, according to Economic Policy Institute.

On the financial front, increased unemployment benefits and Paycheck Protection Program loans aren't hitting many of their COVID-19 relief targets. Government bailout packages aimed at assisting employees and small businesses only address the needs of workers in reported jobs. To receive bailout funds, applicants must produce tax and social security reports that reflect their earnings. But a large number of women hold unreported jobs not covered by the bailouts - jobs in childcare, food and beauty services, farm and migrant labor, and restaurants and hospitality - where much of their compensation includes tips and other underreported wages.

Before the COVID-19 emergency, women were the most overeducated, yet underpaid and overworked group in the U.S. and probably the world. Specifically, women are 5-13 percent more likely to be overeducated than males, yet earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. For women of color, the situation is far worse, and the gap actually widens for women with higher education levels. Hispanic women face the largest wage gap, earning 54 percent on the dollar, according to Equal Pay Today.

Before the pandemic, pay equity was finally recognized as a real workplace problem, and efforts were being made to equalize the workplace gender gap. Nationally and globally, significant strides had been made to right these wrongs, including pay audits and new legislation to acknowledge the steps needed to place working women on equal footing. Then came the novel coronavirus. As women have taken on increased responsibilities in the workplace - while working two and three shifts at home - gender equity seems to be moving backward. Such a backlash puts women in an untenable situation that must be addressed and corrected.

The U.S. cannot allow COVID-19 to take away the years of progress women have made in the workplace or the strides that men have made to achieve greater work-life balance. As employers contemplate the many facets and complex realities of returning to work, they must also think about the ways to integrate, accommodate, and promote women in the "new normal" that lies ahead, as well as the "continuing abnormal" in which we're currently living. A diverse workforce offers great value to any organization, but accommodating diverse needs may mean employers should open differently and more slowly, giving more support to families with childcare, eldercare, and similar responsibilities.

Americans are innovators and have always been resourceful and creative problem-solvers. Our collective response to the COVID-19 threat demonstrates that, but economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus will demand we apply that resolve to an equitable workplace.

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