To end the female recession, women need their own rally cry

To end the female recession, women need their own rally cry
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At a campaign rally in Lansing, Mich., President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE, in an attempt to appeal to women voters stated, “We're getting your husbands back to work, and everybody wants it." The president’s statement lays bare the misguided understanding of what women want and we as a nation need. 

As the pandemic rages on and the economy is in a steep decline, we are faced with the harsh reality that it is women who are being forced to exit the workforce at startling rates. The repercussions of this alarming trend have the potential of wiping out the hard-earned progress made by women and will have ripple effects that could last generations. 

In what is being called the first female recession, we are faced with the harsh reality that more than 800,000 women were forced to leave the American workforce in the past month alone. New research published by LeanIn.org and consulting firm McKinsey & Company spotlighted an even bleaker future, revealing that more than one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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The uncomfortable truth is that this mass exodus is hitting women in all areas of the workforce from entry level service workers to CEOs. Women working in service jobs do not have the option of working from home and the increased exposure to the virus threatens their family’s health as well as their own. Many of them earn a wage that, while needed, may not justify the risk. For women who have the ability to work remotely, the burden of caring for children, overseeing remote education and addressing health concerns are leading to burnout. As social distancing measures have been enforced, many support systems, including child care provided by grandparents and extended family members, have been cut off while finding reliable and safe outside child care has become impossible for countless families. Faced with the impossible task of balancing the risks and demands of work, while maintaining the family unit, women, especially lower earning women, are being forced to leave the workforce.   

In order for our economy to thrive, women are needed in all levels of the workforce. We must shine a spotlight on this crisis and let it serve as a wake-up call to leaders that we need to create flexible work environments as well as develop a culture that supports women. 

As a female executive with three children, I often feel like my mantra for success has been to “work like I don’t have children and mother like I don’t have a career.” Now that I am working remotely it is not uncommon for one of my children to walk into the camera frame on my Zoom call to ask me when I’m going to make them lunch, while I am trying to lead a staff meeting from the laptop in my kitchen, dissolving the illusion that I am solely a one dimensional professional that only exists in an office environment and revealing that I am also a mom with my private world on display. 

Women have the tendency to put themselves on mute during Zoom meetings to block the background noise children may be making, but this also serves to limit their voice in discussions and decision making. As leaders we need to be conscious of the blurred lines remote working has created and look for ways to engage female workers. Ensuring women are involved in decisions that need to be made to address the challenges of the pandemic regarding reopening plans, paid leave policies, flexible work schedules and changes in performance review processes is vital. 

Organizations should take this as an opportunity to revisit their mission and vision to ensure it addresses the unique challenges we are facing and resonates with their audience. When people feel meaning in their work and a sense of purpose, they are more likely to stay engaged. 

The best retention strategy for organizations may be empathy. Find ways to ensure employees feel heard and understood. Allow flexible work schedules, grant time off, provide mental health services, create mentoring opportunities and reach out to people to ask how they are faring during this challenging time. 

Organizations will not be able to turn the tides of this female recession alone. It will require a shift in culture. The responsibility of raising a family and managing a household needs to be viewed as shared and not primarily shouldered by women. Closing the wage gap between male and female workers is a necessity we can no longer afford to ignore. Our most important resource in this crisis will be our voice. We need our own rally cry — speak up for what women want, what we need. We not only need women back to work — we need to stand at podiums, sit in boardrooms, raise our families and chart a brighter course for the sake of generations to come.

Jennifer Riekert, M.B.A., is the vice president of Communications and Strategic Initiatives for New York Medical College and a board member of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) New York Association.