CED - Committee for Economic Development

01/26/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 01/26/2021 07:10

Women Must Be Front and Center on Economic Recovery Efforts

Last Thursday, President Biden unveiled his proposal for further addressing COVID-19 and its economic fallout. While the pandemic has throttled the U.S. economy generally, women, who are nearly half the American workforce, have taken the disproportionate brunt of the damage. As a result, COVID-19's impact on women is a first-order national concern and relief proposals should be judged, in part, on how quickly and forcefully they address this impact. If not, we risk long-term economic consequences not just for women, but for the national economy generally.

The numbers are startling: The COVID-19-driven recession that began in March has featured not only the largest trough-to-peak increase in women's unemployment rate on record - almost 13 percentage points - but also, at nearly 3 percentage points, the largest relative increase in unemployment rates compared to men in more than 70 years. In April 2020, women's employment - in absolute numbers - fell to its lowest level since the 1990s.

The harm of such setbacks - even if only temporary - will not be confined to the families and individuals directly impacted. The Conference Board's economists estimate that the decline in women's employment since the start of the pandemic likely resulted in a loss of more than $550 billion in economic output in 2020.

Why have women been so hard-hit? As the December jobs report shows, COVID-19 has had and continues to have an outsized impact on industries where women are heavily concentrated: For instance, in December of 2020 compared to a year earlier, there were still roughly 21 percent fewer employees in food services and accommodation, and 5 percent fewer employees in education and health services.

In addition, even before the pandemic mothers were already disproportionately bearing the time commitments and career sacrifices that come with child care responsibilities. But disruptions in regular schooling and care arrangements are likely a significant factor in why mothers with children under age 18 saw a 75 percent larger drop in year-over-year employment levels in November 2020 compared to other women.

Taken together, the factors mean that the pandemic poses the biggest threat to progress in the integration and representation of women in the U.S. economy in over half a century.

What can business leaders and the new Administration and Congress do?

COVID-19's impact on working women - and especially working mothers - will take a deliberate and focused effort from business leaders to mitigate and reverse. This effort should include increasing the availability and normalizing the use of flexible work options; improving access to care options by offering working parents subsidies or stipends to meet the increased need or costs for care where care is available - or additional temporary leave benefits where it is not; working to close the gap in pay equity; and, adopting existing best practices for supporting and advancing women into leadership roles.

Companies that recognize the opportunity and reinforce or re-energize their commitments to better support women employees at all levels in the wake of the pandemic will widen talent pools and improve recruitment, providing themselves a competitive advantage that will also help to strengthen the U.S. economy.

Business leaders should also encourage the new Congress and Administration to do more to support mothers who are working or who have already been forced to the sidelines amid the ongoing pandemic and economic trouble.

Providing additional support for the child care sector in the form of a child care stabilization fund would help ensure widespread access to safe, high-quality child care that could help more parents more confidently return to work. Additionally, Congress could go further in ensuring that the temporary, federally-funded paid-leave programs enacted last March, and which expired at the end of 2020, are renewed for as long as COVID-19 continues disrupting care arrangements.

Lawmakers should also take steps to help vulnerable workers permanently disconnected from their previous employers or trajectories return to promising career paths. Lawmakers, working with business leaders, will need to create innovative, business-connected skills training programs through support for training organizations and institutions, or direct support to trainees. Such efforts should not only help furloughed or unemployed workers but also incentivize employers to upskill their current employees, especially low- and middle-wage women through tax credits, for example.

Congress, in collaboration with business leaders, will also need to find new and creative ways to reach out and support those workers - a large portion of whom are women - who have lost work as contractors, gig workers, self-employed professionals, as well as small business owners. Women-owned businesses play an important role in the U.S. economy and are concentrated in industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, such as personal services, healthcare and social assistance, and retail.

Women, as a vital part of the American labor force, and an integral part of the country's economic strength and global competitiveness, should be front and center in the nation's recovery efforts.

Hollie Heikkinen is the CEO and President of iWorker Innovations LLC, and Patricia McKay is Partner Templeton & Company LLP. Both are Trustees of the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board and co-chair the Women in Corporate Leadership Committee.

This op-ed was originally published in RealClearPolicy.