Why International Women’s Day (#IWD2021) Matters So Much This Year

Three generations of women on an outdoor swing

“My mother was my hero.”

That was a cardiologist I met a couple of years ago when she was treating my own mother following a heart procedure. 

I was so grateful for that doctor. She was exceptionally knowledgeable; unwaveringly patient; and instrumental in my mother’s care.

She was also newly returned from maternity leave. 

Long hours in the hospital passed with many conversations, mostly about my mother’s recovery. But she also told me about coming back to work, child care, and how she never wavered in her decision to be both a doctor and a mother. “My mother is also a cardiologist,” she said. “She was the reason I knew what I wanted to do, and that I knew it was possible.”  

I’ve been thinking a lot about that doctor lately; about the origins of her career; and how the combination of jobs and no child care/school shutdowns has created a crossroads for women at work. Headline after headline tells the sad stories: “Coronavirus Child Care Crisis Will Set Women Back a Generation“; “The COVID Economy Is Probably Even Worse for Women Than It Looks”; “America’s Mothers are in Crisis.” The latter comes from a New York Times series about moms during COVID, pointedly titled “The Primal Scream.”  

Men have not been unscathed. But the fallout for women – who continue to manage most of the child care responsibilities – has been outsized, with nearly a million women (four times the number of men) leaving the workforce in September alone. "What was a leaky bucket,” one CEO who’s studied the phenomenon told CNBC, “is now a waterfall of talent leaving the workforce." And women aren’t the only ones who should be worried. “Research,” writes McKinsey, “shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top.” In other words, women are a big loss for everyone. 

Which leads back to that cardiologist. 

The doctor who treated my mother was only on the job because she had a role model who showed her the way. Her rise as a doctor wasn’t incidental to her formative years watching her mother practice medicine and raise a family – it was because of it. And right now those role models are at risk. What happens if they no longer exist? A loss of 5% of women from the workforce would send women’s progress back 25 years. What happens if the legacy of the pandemic is a generation of working mothers who go back in time? It means the consequences of today’s mass exits won’t just cost our workplaces in today’s contributors; they could very well cost tomorrow’s, too. That should matter to all of us. 

So right now, as women continue to question careers, we need to remind them of their value in the workplace; to remind them why we need them to come back; to shore up child care and work policies that make work and parenting possible. Just as important, we need to bring men into the conversation, and remind everyone that a truly gender equal world is one that challenges all gender stereotypes; so women are valued as equal partners in the workplace, and men are valued as equal partners at home. 

As the #IWD2021 theme says: #ChooseToChallenge. Bringing women back is a significant challenge. If we don’t act to preserve women’s participation, we’ll miss out on people like that doctor – a professional who needed a role model to get where she is, and who has no doubt been so instrumental to the many people who need her. 

Millions of women are leaving the workforce. Millions of girls are coming up behind them, and they need heroes of their own. 

This is why International Women’s Day is so important this year.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

February 26, 2021

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.