275,000 women left the workforce in January of 2021, according to the Bureau of U.S Labor Statistics.
Since the pandemic started, women’s labor force participation has fallen to historically low levels, and women have accounted for 56 percent of workforce exits despite making up just 48 percent of the labor market.
Before the pandemic, reports estimated that women were responsible for twice as much unpaid care as their man-identified counterparts. The recent global health crisis has widened this gap, with some estimates suggesting that women have added three additional hours of caregiving to their days — or fifteen hours per week — on top of their full-time jobs. For this reason, recent projections suggest women’s employment may not reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024, which is two years later than men’s employment.
The disparities only increase when you factor in intersectionality. A report from McKinsey found “women with less than high-school attainment had an unemployment rate that was ten percentage points higher than their male counterparts compared with pre-pandemic levels,” and “Black workers without a college degree had an unemployment rate of 12 to 14 percent, nearly double that of white workers with comparable educational attainment.”
As a White woman in the workforce with a college degree and no caregiving responsibilities, I acknowledge the position of privilege from which I view this trend. I also acknowledge that for me — a person with significant advantages — the COVID pandemic has forced me to consider at the very least downgrading my professional responsibilities. In response to the increase in my unpaid work, more than one person has encouraged me to put off having children “if I care about the success of my business” and to “hire domestic help” to allow me to sustain longer working hours.
But it’s not my own experiences that alerted me to this economically, socially, and politically dangerous situation. In the middle of the COVID pandemic, I was coaching fourteen different women-identified technologists. On top of their own specific goals, one theme emerged consistently across their one-on-one sessions: time management.
At first, I considered this request as natural — understanding how to work from home and navigate changing office dynamics in the midst of an unprecedented crisis would require more time. But then I started to notice something. My coachees weren’t asking me how to be more efficient; they were literally asking how to create more hours to juggle increasingly demanding responsibilities at home and at work.
Two different coachees admitted to using their vacation days and sick leave to accommodate online learning for their kids. Others reported working nights and weekends to ensure their colleagues didn’t think they were “slacking” on their responsibilities, as well as reducing their sleep down to as little as two to four hours per night just to keep up. When I asked if they could take paid time off for their own rest and recovery, I heard that if they did, they would “fall behind” at work or that they wouldn’t get to rest anyway because their partners were working full-time, leaving them to manage care regardless.
Over and over again, I asked why workplaces weren’t accommodating these more challenging schedules as part of just a baseline retention strategy, not to mention a general sense of shared humanity and struggle. What companies responded with was that they had an expansive policy of “as long as your work gets done, you can work whenever,” even as I heard my coachees saying they were being asked to take on more work, not less.
While company leaders joke about welcoming young kids into Zoom meetings and folding laundry during international calls, they benefit from an increase in working hours on average. A Harvard Business School study found that the average workday increased by 8.2%, or about 48 minutes since the pandemic started.
To paraphrase a tweet that caught my eye during a doom-scroll around U.S. unemployment rates: we are not working from home; we are living at work.
This idea of living at work is really sticking with me. Take a moment to imagine the kind of worker who keeps a cot in their office or a change of clothes in the file cabinet. Does the same image come to mind for you as it does for me? Because I see a White cisgender man in banking or tech, not a woman of color with three kids and limited childcare options.
Yet, women are adding up to four hours of additional labor to their workdays if they choose to continue participating in the workforce without the benefit of being viewed as ambitious upstarts or team players making an intentional investment in better career prospects.
What most strikes me is how little in the way of protest I see to a labor force crisis rooted in inequity. At the end of last year, women accounted for all of the net job losses, even as men experienced some job gains.
From a social identity theory perspective, covering — hiding aspects of a disfavored identity — drives part of this trend. As Rachel Vorona Cote explores at length in Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, women are punished for saying too much, being too much, having too much, and wanting too much. But the phrase “too much” is ambiguous, ill-defined, and mostly abstract, making it the perfect mechanism for silencing and stymying.
Like others before her, Cote draws the parallel between social identity and how much space a person is allowed to take up as their own.
“Systemic oppression relies on the careful partitioning of social space. Specifically, it requires that marginalized peoples — of which women are one broad example, and women of color and queer persons are more pointedly targeted ones — dwell within corners, that we shrink inside walls that loom and compress,” she writes.
This careful partitioning of social space is showing up in our workplace dynamics. With unpaid labor increasing at home, and the social expectation that we will not complain but try to “lean in” and “make it work,” we are left with few options but to overburden ourselves at significant cost to self (if the option even exists), to downgrade our work responsibilities, or to leave.
In our current era, women are being tasked with too much at the same time that their fear of being labeled as “too much” is keeping them from mobilizing against the social expectations of increased unpaid labor. And it’s driving them out of the workforce at historic highs.
While I can’t pretend to have “the answer” to the overarching problem, especially as someone not experiencing many of the challenges of my femme counterparts and occupying a decidedly white-collar space, I can propose some ideas that could help stem the tide of what’s projected to be as many as two million women leaving corporate jobs because of COVID.
Some quick shifts include:
- Scrapping 9 to 5 as the range of hours to be “on.”
- Making meetings optional.
- Working to set “maximum hours” for salaried employees (who won’t lose income if their hours are reduced).-
- Increasing the scope of paid leave, especially considering what family leave might mean, will also help women who won’t have to choose between working and their family’s essential needs.
- Finally, right-sizing jobs and eliminating “nice-to-have” and “extra” responsibilities as part of the criteria for, not just advancing, but being considered a solid performer.
Now is not the time to be asking your employees to work more, especially if the gains are marginal to nonexistent. The future of women’s participation in the workforce depends on our adaptability to their needs.