By Sandra Doran
Work has always been a women’s issue. Whether we work or not, the types of jobs we do, how much we are paid, and how far we can advance, it’s all shaped by our experiences as women, and this, in turn, shapes the central mission at Bay Path University. Therefore, it has been hard to see how deeply the pandemic has thwarted working women. In January, the National Women’s Law Center calculated the percentage of women working at 57%, the lowest it has been since 1988.
As the conversation grows louder, and the issues more pressing, this is our moment to seize, for making changes that are long overdue. At Bay Path, we’re doubling down on our commitment to preparing women for the career world, but the pandemic has confirmed it’s high time that businesses, organizations, and policymakers get on board with preparing the career world for women. Here are a few places to start.
• Support mothers. Over the last 30 years, childcare costs have increased by 70%, while real median wages have increased by a scant 7%. The cost of childcare in the U.S. and the allegiance to traditional gender roles still forces women into the slow lane of career growth and pushes many to take the off-ramp. Taking time away from one’s career puts women at risk of re-entering the labor market at a lower entry point than when they left, a scenario that underlies our persistent wage gap. The experiences of mothers during the pandemic has led to renewed calls for subsidized childcare, something every other industrialized country in the world offers. At the same time, the nearly universal pivot to remote work arrangements should inspire us all to develop schedules and create resources that expand the flexibility we can offer.
• Expand access to degrees for more women. It’s never been more important for women to get their degrees. It still holds true that women with bachelor’s degrees will earn $630,000 more over the course of their careers than high-school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more. Most women who left the workforce exited the hospitality, health-services, and retail sectors, where the majority of jobs do not require a degree and the majority of workers don’t have one. Due to their disproportionate representation in these sectors, fewer black and Hispanic women are working now than any other demographic. Creating access to degrees and providing the support to help women complete them can have a transformational impact on the types of jobs women fill and the amount of money they earn.
• Put more women in charge of more companies. Today, there are actually fewer women in rising management roles than there were in 2019, even though having more women in leadership roles isn’t just good for women, it’s better for business. Although men and women start in roughly the same positions, by age 30 to 44, 36% of men become supervisors or managers, compared to 30% of women. By age 45 and older, 12% of men ascend to an executive-level role, while only 6% of women do. A Harvard Business School study found that having women represent 30% of corporate leadership leads to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm. Researchers attributed this to “increased skill diversity within top management,” which translates to an ability to encourage better employee performance and stronger recruitment, promotion, and retention of talent (the women who otherwise would have left due to gender discrimination).
• Shift the ways we define ‘women’s work’ and what it’s worth. In 2017, 64.2% of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinners for their families. Our jobs are central to supporting our families and ourselves, yet they are routinely undervalued and underpaid (see teachers, 76% women; social workers, 83% women; and healthcare workers, 85% women). Questions to consider: if more men entered these fields, as they did with computer programming, a skill once tied to women’s secretarial roles, would wages go up? If they did, would more men opt to enter these fields? This chicken-egg scenario inevitably leads to the same takeaway: these critical roles need higher pay to truly represent their value to our society.
We’re living in remarkable times, when we’re not just dreaming of change, we’re demanding it — for our daughters, sisters, friends, co-workers, and, obviously, our students. Women’s employment isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic rates until 2024 (men will get there in 2023), and the road back can’t be paved only with good intentions. A recovery won’t do — what we really need is a reimagining.
Sandra Doran is president of Bay Path University.