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The Shecession: The Trouble with Women

We’ve been through one hell of a year. I got my first COVID vaccine last weekend, and I’ve never seen so many happy people, getting needles stuck in their arms. Never thought I’d see a vaccination site filled with ecstatic people that were thrilled to be there, ready to celebrate!

We are not out of the woods yet, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Just warning you that light might be a train coming straight at us. Wait, but the vaccine is rolling out and look at the highs in the stock market. These are wonderful but lurking beneath the surface is a huge problem and if we don’t address it now, it will be a huge complication to our nation’s and the global recovery.

Right now, 2.3 million women have left the workforce since Feb of 2020,
while the comparable rate for men is only 1.8 million.

Why did this Happen?

Women got hit hard by the Covid pandemic because of two key factors. First, women held disproportionate number of jobs in the service sector of the economy, which was hardest hit by the Covid shutdowns. Here’s the breakdown of the industries where women lost the most jobs[1]:

It is also important to note that,

2 in 5 jobs lost during the pandemic have not yet come back,

and some of these may never return. That means many women may still need to pivot and enter new industries to make use of their skills or gain new skills to survive in our post-pandemic world.

The second reason women were hit so hard in the pandemic is that women are often the primary care givers for both children and for aging relatives. I hark back to the wisdom of Lori Siegerman of Intuit, who I interviewed in my podcast[2]. Early in the pandemic, she discovered that many employees were feeling like they were trying to do it all; get their work done, keep their home life organized, and attend to their families including those that now needed extra support. Many felt they were failing at everything. Because of this type of pressure, many women, especially those with young children, simply chose to leave the workforce, feeling this the only clear path that would preserve their families. I’ll also note that Intuit, recognizing this as a potential problem, offered additional support to employees and has not experienced a significant loss of women. There is a lot that company’s can do to help women thrive.

How Bad is It?

To get a clearer picture of what our nations women are facing, let’s look at the unemployment numbers. But first, we should look at the definition of unemployment. The US government defines this using the number of people that are looking for work. This definition does not include those who left work in order to take care of their families because technically they are not “looking for work.” Perhaps this is a definition we should really reconsider as there are many times in people’s lives when ‘stepping out’ of the workforce is the most rational thing people can do.

The chart above shows the Feb 2021 unemployment rates by two measures. The first is the standard unemployment definition and the second “Unemployed, not looking” counts those in the first category plus those who have left the workforce but are not actively looking for a job (as represented by the orange bars). This ‘Unemployed, not looking’ view reflects a more accurate picture. Included in this data, taken from the National Women’s Law Center, are the breakouts for both black women and Latinas. As you can see these unemployment percentages are substantially higher.

It’s these numbers that have resulted in the current situation being referred to as the “Shecession,” where women suffer an inordinately high percentage of job losses.

Labor force participation rates also tells the bitter story.

Labor Force Participation Rate

Currently the labor force participation rate for women has hit one of its lowest points since 1988. Meaning we have just lost 33 years of progress for women in the workplace!

But wait, there’s more … and it’s not really good news either.

What Does the Future Look Like?

1 in 4 Women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

Yes, you heard that correctly, 1 in 4 women. There are still many women teetering on the edge. Not sure if they can continue to carry their burden any longer. We may continue to see women leaving the workforce. The latest Women in the Workplace study[3] identified several areas where challenges are likely to push women over the edge driving them out of the workforce:

• Lack of flexibility at work

• Feeling like they need to be “always on”

• Housework and caregiving burdens

• Concern their performance is being negatively judged due to caregiving responsibilities

• Discomfort sharing challenges they are facing with teammates or managers

• Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work

• Feeling unable to bring their whole self to work

Knowing these gives managers and employers the keys to identifying ways to alleviate some of these challenges. It’s important to ask people what they need.

What We Can Do

1. Step Up – Each and every one of us can find another woman and lend them a hand. Everyone in the household should be volunteering for housework and other chores. My teen boys do all their own laundry. I only get involved when all our 7 of our laundry baskets have disappeared into their rooms, full of clean clothes.

2. Flexibility is key! Employers who have demonstrated flexibility are not losing their women. You may want to allow employees to work fewer or different hours. Job sharing might be helpful. Many employers have offered additional or expanded benefits during the pandemic. Perhaps the best thing you can do right now is to ask, “How are you doing? Then explore what you can change to help make your employees more productive. Investing now can prevent further job loss and the high cost of rehiring and training employees.

3. Hiring is going to happen as vaccines roll out and a new version of normal begins. Expand your thinking about the skills you need and where you can find them. Take a look again at the industries hardest hit. There may be skilled individuals in this industry that match your needs. Perhaps you can accelerate on-boarding with industry specific training. Many companies are creating “returnships” that aid women in returning to the workforce after time away. Some of these offer upskilling programs as well. Many include trying the roles out on a part time basis before stepping into a full-time role.

4. Take a hard look at your hiring process and the percentage of women you have lost. Set hiring targets to recover any ground you lost and then some. If you need to add to your diversity, then set targets accordingly. If you do not have two or more diverse candidates on each slate, there is little chance that you will actually hire a diverse candidate. Make sure your slates have 2 or more diverse candidates. If you want a diverse candidate to say yes, then make sure they see some diversity in their interview teams.

These are just a sampling of what we can do and actions employers can take to help alleviate this crisis. Being aware of the issue is only the first step! I’d love to see comments of steps employers are taking to retain and rehire women. We are in this together.

[1] Ewing-Nelson, Claire and Tucker, Jasmine. “A Year Into the Pandemic, Women Are Still Short Nearly 5.1 Million Jobs, March 2021 Fact Sheet.” National Women’s Law Center

[2] Cornwell, Karen. “You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See Podcast: Intuit: Inclusive Leadership Model and Extra Pandemic Support”, Nov 30, 2020. (

[3] Thomas, Rachel. Cooper, Marianne. Cardazone, Gina “Women in the Workplace 2020”, published by McKinsey and Lean in.



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