Women’s History Month Masked a Hidden Pandemic

Image credit: iStockphoto/mangojuicy

Being human means being a part of a tribe and contributing to the success of the group, but the burden of tribal caretaking is often unduly placed upon the shoulders of women. This was particularly poignant as we celebrated Women’s History Month last month while also marking the second anniversary of a pandemic — a time when women’s so-called progress (a paltry 8.1% of Fortune 500 executives being women in 2021 was hailed as record-breaking!) has faltered and even regressed.

By February 2021, 2.5 million women had dropped out of the labor force, compared to 1.8 million men. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report in January tells us that, although men have fully recovered from their pandemic labor losses, women are still over a million shy of their employment numbers in February 2020.

One part of this exodus is attributable to the disproportionate number of women in customer-facing travel, hospitality, and service jobs, which are challenging to do remotely. For instance, women make up 70% of the health workforce as nurses, midwives, and community health workers. The other part has to do with the increasing demand for caretakers. Between an aging population, school closures, and outstretched medical personnel, families (i.e., mothers) have had to completely readjust how they manage their dependents (old and young) — meaning either that their work is put aside or they suffer inevitable burnout.

In the first two months of the pandemic, 3.5 million mothers with school-age children left work. During 2020 and into 2021, less than 2 million mothers trickled back into the workforce, learning how to juggle homework and careers. Yet as these women reenter their professions, their departure continues to stunt potential earnings. Compounding the employment setbacks for women are a higher risk of psychiatric symptoms during the pandemic and instances of violence, with increases of 25–30% in countries with reporting systems.

What does this mean for the role of brands? People trust brands more than institutions like the government and expect them to take a stance on social issues. As we wrapped up another Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day taking place this past March 8, brands are diligently paying lip service to #IWD2022, but skeptics are calling these same brands out for gendered gaps in pay (@PayGapApp), and companies aren’t making compelling cases for women to return to work.

Actively supporting women in your workplace requires more than sending out a performative tweet. It requires action, such as providing working parents with paid family leave without penalizing them for taking it, addressing the pay and representation gap in management, and more. Start by:

  1. Taking stock. Is your company presenting itself as a female-friendly work environment? Take the time to evaluate women’s experiences in your organization and in your industry. Ask your management team if they feel enabled with the right tools and resources to empower women. Do your employees know where they can get help if they need it? Tech and finance companies, in particular, are up against a reputation soiled by companies like Activision Blizzard and a history of inappropriate behavior. They will have to work harder to differentiate themselves from the industry’s reputation. Identifying problems before they bubble up is a good start.
  2. Being strategic. Coordinate across the organization to deliver holistic brand change to become forward-thinking and attract diverse candidates (Forrester’s upcoming research on employer branding can help you). If your employees don’t feel empowered or inspired to support female colleagues, start creating development programs to train them and create resource hubs that they can turn to for help. Resource groups can provide safe spaces for diverse and minority groups to share and support each other.
  3. Being authentic. Authenticity is a must-have in the age of misinformation and distrust. If you believe #womenruntheworld, help them run the world. As we’ve discussed in our cancel culture research, consumers will pull apart false narratives and call out fakes. This is even more true of employees. If you say something, make sure it’s aligned with your corporate values and history. If it’s not, either don’t say it or plan to put the work in to earn credibility in the conversation.

While women’s employment equality was top of mind for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this is a small piece of the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion for everyone. As brands continue to take the sociopolitical stage, they need to consider how they present to their consumers and employees. Our previous reports have discussed branding around racial equity and the alignment of customer and employee experience, and future reports will continue to beat the same drum: Brands need to be forward-thinking to be future fit — not just because it’s best for the bottom line but also because it’s the right thing to do for customers, employees, and for every stakeholder.

The original article by Dipanjan Chatterjee, Forrester's vice president and principal analyst, is here. Alex Schanne, research associate, was a major contributor to this blog; Principal Analysts Jinan Budge and Sam Higgins offered valuable guidance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/mangojuicy