By: Erica Loken
This Women’s History Month, issues related to women garnered a lot of headlines, but not all the news was good. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and magnified significant barriers to women’s economic recovery that have long required solutions. No doubt women have made significant strides, such as the Nation electing the first female vice president and a record number of women in Congress, but the number of women in the workplace is declining.
Over 2.3 million women have left the workforce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 25 percent have considered leaving the labor force or stepping back from full-time work. These challenges disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women as well as low-income women. The crisis of women dropping out of the workforce will set women back even further economically if America’s leaders don’t come together across sectors and political divides to act quickly and decisively to put effective and sustainable solutions into action.
In response to the crisis facing America’s workers, we convened the Convergence Dialogue on Economic Recovery for America’s Workers, which brought together a diverse group of participant stakeholders including business leaders, worker advocates, and workforce policy experts to identify the watershed issues for worker recovery. Experts agree, and our participants echoed, that policies that squarely address the needs of women are fundamental to America’s full economic recovery.
As the dialogue on Economic Recovery wraps up, the group identified the need for strategic collaborative dialogue to increase access to benefits and supports for dislocated workers and their families, including strengthening the childcare sector and expanding childcare access. Pre-pandemic caregiving fell heavily on women and has only intensified throughout the crisis. With school closures and childcare options upended by COVID-19, women have borne the burden of both caregiving and educating children at home. Moreover, the childcare industry has been decimated, with childcare providers and childcare workers being one of the economic sectors hit hardest by shutdowns.
Why were our participants so concerned about childcare access? Resuscitating the childcare industry is critical to working women in every field. Simply put, working mothers will face barriers to returning to work if they do not have adequate supports for their children. America needs a robust childcare infrastructure to support women’s return to work, but experts agree that we can’t go back to the inadequate system of childcare that was not responsive to the needs of families or workers and has struggled to withstand the economic shock caused by the pandemic.
We need innovative, collaborative solutions that effectively support childcare workers and providers, who happen to be predominantly women, and particularly women of color. Solutions should expand access to quality, affordable childcare for families. Because the needs of every family are different, giving parents more childcare options and greater flexibility is vital — including for those who lean on family and friend care instead of center-based care.
A second area that Economic Recovery participants emphasized as in urgent need of attention is expanding skilling and reskilling opportunities for unemployed and at-risk workers. Giving workers more skill-building options is essential to creating pathways to secure, quality jobs that lead to economic mobility. Doing so will benefit all workers, but done right, should aim to propel the most at-risk women into more secure positions so that they may attain greater job and economic security.
Our stakeholder participants agreed that solutions should consider both rapid re-skilling and re-employment as well as re-skilling in the context of career change. These efforts ought to focus on quickly moving people back to employment and identify clear and available pathways for workers in industries with heavy job losses to find adjacent or similar roles.
The issues exacerbated by the pandemic are deeply ingrained and consequential for all women, not strictly working mothers. Nahla Valji, Senior Adviser on Gender at the United Nations, lays this out succinctly.
“Crises amplify existing inequalities, and so […] women are being affected more severely by the socioeconomic impacts of this pandemic. This is because […] women earn less, they save less, they’re more likely to be in precarious jobs with little security or protections if they do work, or in the informal sector, with no protections at all. And that means that they have less buffer to economic shocks, such as the ones we are experiencing.”
Now is not the time to retreat into our corners, but to come together across sectors and across parties in collaborative dialogue to surface the most effective and sustainable solutions. Together we can ensure women come out of this crisis in a stronger position that will allow them to both thrive and stave off future economic shocks.
Erica Loken is a Project Associate at Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.