How to Reverse the Pandemic’s Toll on Women’s Careers

Mom caring for her infant at home instead of working

Decades from now, 2020 will be remembered for a lot of things, among them: answering some key questions about work.

Could whole workforces effectively work from home? Yes, they definitely could.

Did WFH mean parents didn’t need help with the kids? No, it definitely did not.

Had women come as far in business as we thought they had? No, they hadn’t.

Headlines linking child care and women’s careers tell a bleak story:  

Careers Gains Grinding to a Halt

Call it a clash between expectations and reality. Women may have been climbing career ladders for years, but data showed even then, they were still managing more of the responsibilities at home. It took the shutdown to bring the tilt into full view, parking child care squarely in women’s camp, and reminding us that as recently as 2018, a full third of Americans believed women should stay home.“When something has to give,” Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist of gender and families at Washington University in St. Louis, told Washington Post’s The Lilly, “it is very often women’s careers.”

And women are stepping away. A June study from the Mom Project showed the effects on working mothers made them twice as likely as dads to be thinking about an exit. Those impacts could affect pay checks for decades. “Even if moms return to work someday,” wrote Working Mother of the ever-yawning pay gap that takes $150k-plus over a woman’s career, “their lifetime earnings will have decreased, and not just because of the months they spent not pulling in a paycheck.” 

And what of the future? This time last year, women were on track to become the majority of college-educated workers. All those credentials become wall décor if they opt out, a big loss when you consider the important frontline roles working mothers played during the crisis. If all that’s not enough, absent working mothers as young girls’ role models, what are the effects on tomorrow’s career women? “Working mothers,” wrote Money about a 2018 study showing higher female earners from working-mother households, “have an overwhelmingly positive influence on their children.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

So what do we do? Business leaders say it’s time for a reset.

Take what we learned from the shutdown: Accenture Chief Leadership & Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook spoke on our recent Future of Work panel, encouraging employers to be introspective and rise above the pandemic’s negative effects. “How do you keep the things that were great about this crisis,” said Ellyn, “and leave behind the things that were not so great?” Leaving work-from-home arrangements in place alone could be transformative since, absent child care, getting to the office is a currently a woman’s major stumbling block. And in fact in many places, neither mothers nor fathers are in a hurry to go back to their old routines.

Fix what wasn’t working: If the pandemic proved something else, it’s that work-from home and child care are not mutually exclusive. Working Mother notes the child care shortage – already a challenge before COVID – is about to get worse, with 20% of spaces about to disappear. For women’s careers to truly thrive, employers will have to deal with such whole-employee problems.  Employees, said Arianna Huffington on our panel, “can’t be the supreme professional at work if we don’t take care of our own levels of stress.”

“I think the most critical thing for all of us as leaders to think about is how do you give your people choice,” added Ellyn. “I think we’ve all learned that work can be done very differently now, and the obligation is on leadership to really enable people to have choice.”

That choice will enable women to keep working.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

June 30, 2020

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.