For many, work seems to have returned to normal as the nation learns to cope with COVID-19. But more than 1 million jobs once held by women, most of which are considered essential, remain unfilled.
“In general, women have experienced more profound hardship during the pandemic,” says Taryn Mackenzie Williams, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for disability employment policy.
Williams was a panelist for “Essential but Unequal: The Pandemic’s Toll on Working Women,” a session at the 2022 NCSL Legislative Summit in Denver to address the economic and mental health challenges facing the female workforce, along with practical solutions.
Of the 4.6 million direct care workers in the U.S., 87% are women, Williams says. These skilled professionals address a wide variety of critical areas, including helping people with disabilities and offering training and support.
“During the pandemic, women had to wear many hats,” she says. “They were juggling work, home-schooling their children, they were facing stresses like community front-line workers in a time that was—and frankly in many cases still is—dangerous.”
Still Feeling the Effects
Gayle Goldin, senior advisor at the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor and a former state senator from Rhode Island, says we are still feeling the effects of two-plus years of COVID—and women are feeling it more than men.
“At the worst point in the crisis, women lost more jobs than men,” she says. “Women also left the labor force in greater numbers, and mothers cut their work hours substantially more than fathers did.”
She says women, especially women of color, are experiencing more negative impacts for two reasons. “First of all, women have always disproportionately performed the majority of the family caregiving. And that has to do with both caregiving for children and for family members. And during COVID we certainly saw the impact of having children schooled in the home. … Second, women are underrepresented in certain industries and are overrepresented in others, and this is particularly what happened for women’s job losses.”
So, what can be done?
“In order to create an economy that is fair, inclusive and resilient, we must seize the opportunity to address deep, long-standing inequities that continue to impact women and people of color and working families,” Goldin says.
She points to highlighting nontraditional occupations: The Women’s Bureau, for example, is focusing on the work of tradeswomen across the country, with grant money used to increase the participation of women in apprenticeship programs in historically male-dominated fields. She also says policy change, including paid leave, is gaining traction across the country, along with innovative investments in child care, including increased wages and access. “This is a critical moment in our country’s history,” Goldin says. “We have the opportunity to create change. We have the opportunity to create a new workforce, and we have an opportunity to change our economy for the future.”
Simone D. Ross, president and CEO of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says a recent research report from the chamber and partner organizations found women experienced a disproportionate displacement in the workforce at all levels.
“But it really is staggering when you consider 2.2 million women have exited the workforce since 2020,” she says. “Just think about this: What is a workforce without women? What is a workforce without people of color? What is a workforce without individuals able to bring their intersectional identities and their experiences to contribute and add value to work? Well, it’s not a great workforce at all.”
Ross says in Colorado, her group has focused on advancing women in business, pointing to transparency in pay legislation, paid sick leave, working with private entities to offer more equitable access to capital and financing and child care.
“For us, transparency is key,” she says. “If inequity has been systematized, the only way to create equity is to systematize equity. And one of those ways is through transparency.”
Kentucky Rep. Samara Heavrin (R), the youngest woman elected to her state’s General Assembly, says her work to help empower women is focused on meeting people where they’re at.
“Instead of putting Band-Aids and throwing money at things, let’s actually look and see what the problems are,” she says.
It’s also about engaging fellow legislators.
“We’ve got Republicans and Democrats and we’ve got independents, so how do we come together on an issue?” Heavrin says, adding that starting conversations with colleagues across the aisle has helped her pass legislation.
“I ran for office because I believe that women deserve a spot at the table, and you can’t imagine what you haven’t seen,” she says. “When I think, this isn’t going to pass, or this isn’t going to work, it encourages me to work harder for these future women so that the young ladies and young men that come after us won’t have to deal with these issues.”
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.