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By Joanne Hilferty, Dan Kenary, and Brooke Thomson

In 2020, the same year a record number of women were elected to Congress and the first woman was elected vice president, COVID-19 had a devastating and potentially permanent impact on women in the workforce.

The percentage of women participating in the U.S. labor market in October 2020 was the lowest since 1988, and of the 9.8 million jobs that have not yet returned, 55% belong to women. In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.

Before the pandemic, women in Massachusetts were participating in the workforce at increasing rates, surpassing the national rate by 2019. COVID-19 brought them back to where they were at the end of the Great Recession in 2009.

More than 40% of female employees in Massachusetts work in education, healthcare, and social assistance, sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Add the lack of quality childcare options brought about by the closure of schools and early-education programs, and you have a perfect storm forcing women to face gut-wrenching choices.

“In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2020, when schools typically reopen, a staggering 69% of women said the pandemic was keeping them from returning to work for reasons other than downsizing or business closure. In a survey conducted by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) last fall, 67% of employers listed lack of childcare as a primary concern for their workforces.

Fortunately, organizations in Massachusetts are taking a leadership role in addressing the ongoing challenges facing women in the workforce. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, the Commonwealth Institute, and the newly formed Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education are focused on advancing important changes, such as pay and representation equity. Even before the pandemic, women on average made about 81 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Women and men should have the same options to pursue a career and raise a family, but the pandemic has laid bare the reality that women are expected to take greater responsibility for their families without sufficient support.

Ensuring that jobs traditionally filled by women have more extensive protections and finding a path toward more balanced representation of women in industries like information technology, transportation, and construction — fields where female representation is still limited — are also critical steps to achieve greater balance in the long term. However, immediate action is needed to ensure progress made by women does not erode further.

That is why AIM is calling on employers to make a commitment now to review their practices and policies and make immediate, substantive adjustments to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women and other caregivers in the workforce. Specific recommendations include:

• Committing to providing pay increases and advancement steps to women caregivers on schedule rather than penalizing those who have been on leave or working limited hours;

• Extending the time workers can be on leave to coincide with the duration of the pandemic;

• Giving hiring preference to former workers, if their experience and skills allow, who were required to leave the workplace due to family demands;

• Extending the time that returning workers can bridge tenure for benefits and other considerations to coincide with the full duration of the pandemic;

• Listening to individual employees about their specific needs and expectations and not making assumptions about what each woman or caregiver can or cannot do; and

• Instituting practices that reduce conflict with remote schooling, such as not holding meetings before 9 a.m. or at lunch, when children need assistance.

These steps alone will not fully offset the impact of the pandemic on women; they will, however, demonstrate the business community’s commitment to supporting the Commonwealth’s skilled female labor force. Massachusetts cannot afford to go back to business as usual as the light begins to shine at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, especially when it comes to how businesses and public policy treat working women.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented responsibility for the Commonwealth and the nation to see decreasing numbers of female workforce participation for what they are — gaps in the system allowing available and accessible talent to fall straight through. Failure to act on them now will have long-term, devastating impacts on the Massachusetts economy.

Joanne Hilferty is board chair at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and president and CEO of Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. Dan Kenary is immediate past chair of the AIM board and CEO and co-founder of Mass Bay Brewing Co. Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of Government Affairs at AIM. This article first appeared as an op-ed in the Boston Globe.

 

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