Last month, America lost a whopping 140,000 jobs—and women accounted for all of them. All of them. For a while now, it’s been clear the pandemic has ushered in a “she-cession” and devastated working women. I see it in the news. I see it in the jobs’ numbers. And I see it every day.
Like so many Americans, I’ve spent the past year on video calls with colleagues. While I don’t think I’ll ever choose FaceTime over face time again, these calls have served a purpose—allowing me to not just work from home but see what that work looks like, up close, for others. And for the women in my orbit? It looks, well, impossible. Especially the moms.
Their titles make little difference. Executive vice president or administrative assistant, I’ve watched all of them attempt to juggle work, kids and chores—only to inevitably drop the ball somewhere and end up feeling like a failure at all three. And it’s not just the entertainment industry I work in, which was actually leading the way on gender parity in corporate America. My daughter, a working mom of two, is going through it, too. Even with a spouse who shares responsibilities, she’s found herself questioning how much more she can handle.
These women aren’t working from home; they’re living from work. The burnout, inadequacy and anxiety they feel is real. And by most measures, they’re the lucky ones—with flexible jobs, flexible hours and flexible partners. For low-income women who work outside the house or single mothers who have no one to help shoulder the burden, the situation is significantly worse.
We all know about that figurative glass ceiling composed of laws and traditions holding women down. But today, there’s another force women have to contend with: a glass bubble keeping them in—in the home, in charge of childcare, in service of society’s expectations. And it’s been exacerbated by COVID-19 confinement.
For starters, the pandemic has disproportionately battered industries with higher concentrations of female workers, like retail, leisure, hospitality, education and entertainment. And when lockdowns shuttered schools and daycare centers, it was women who stepped up at home—often by stepping back at work, either cutting hours or leaving jobs entirely.
That may sound like a choice. But for so many women, it isn’t. Not when the wage gap makes our income feel more disposable than a man’s. And not when we’re pressured to assume the role of caretaker, even when we’re the breadwinners.
If nothing changes, we’re all screwed. The wage gap is set to grow. America’s GDP is set to shrink. Our economy is set to lose out on billions of dollars. And, experts warn, working women will be set back a decade.
Fortunately, this once-in-a-lifetime challenge is also a chance to do better: to fix a system that was broken long before the pandemic, rebuild an economy that finally works for working women, and shatter the glass ceiling—and bubble—for good.
Passing legislation that helps working mothers support themselves and their families, like paid parental leave and universal childcare, is key. Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, has even called for a Marshall Plan for moms, which includes direct cash payments for women. But in the absence of federal action, there’s a great deal the private sector can and must do.
To help women at work (and thereby help us all), industry leaders need to seize this moment and really change work—not only for our mothers, but for our fathers, too.
That means building out flexible work arrangements beyond the pandemic, loosening our grip on in-person office requirements and the typical nine-to-five workday and five-day workweek. For as long as I’ve had women reporting to me, I’ve encouraged four-day weeks, logged during off hours if necessary, so work life and home life can coexist. The payoff has been immeasurable, engendering (pun intended) a sense of loyalty and dedication while keeping talent in our organizations.
When that flexibility isn’t an option, it means investing in the infrastructure working women need to thrive once they return to the workplace—from dedicated lactation rooms to affordable on-site childcare, and not just in white-collar industries.
It means implementing gender-neutral leave policies for new parents—and aggressively encouraging fathers to use them. When men, on average, take just one day of parental leave for every month a woman takes, they unintentionally reinforce sexist stereotypes and harm new moms, who end up hitting a “maternal wall” when they do take longer leave.
And it means actively recruiting parents who’ve left the workforce—and not just since March. At NBCUniversal, we’ve been doing this for years through our Returnships, which offer comeback opportunities for people who’ve put their careers on hold. As a result, our company is swelling with more ambitious working women than I could have dreamed of back when I started here a few decades ago. We’re not the only ones. IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Johnson & Johnson have them, too.
With a vaccine finally being administered (and the end of Zoom school finally in sight), programs like these will only become more important. But alone they’re not enough. To get women—and our economy—back to work, we have to change our culture.
We have to start valuing the unpaid labor women do around the clock. In two-parent households, we have to normalize childcare and housework as shared responsibilities. And when remote work is an option, we have to ensure it’s not always women staying home and men going to the office. Because getting face time is critical to getting noticed and promoted. Because the parent who stays home, even if she’s working, ends up also doing the work of home—the cleaning, the cooking, the scheduling, the bills. And because I know I’m not alone in missing my commute, or at least the time it afforded me to collect my thoughts and catch my breath.
These days, I’m finding that time on daily strolls around my neighborhood. With 40 years of work under my belt, this is still a first for me—getting to eat lunch in my kitchen, to walk the dogs, to stop and smell the roses (and unintentionally smell whatever the dogs rolled in). I’ll admit I don’t hate it. But if I were a few decades younger, I’d be petrified. I’d be overwhelmed. And I can’t promise I’d be any different from the millions of women who’ve admitted, over the past year, that they just can’t do it all.
Here’s a secret, though: no one can. When Rosie the Riveter flexed her bicep 80 years ago and said, “We can do it!” she never meant alone. She was answering the call for her generation to join the workforce in droves—but it only worked because the country had acknowledged, at the height of World War II, that it wouldn’t survive without the participation of working women. And the economy changed to help them, and everyone, succeed.
Today, America faces a similar challenge. Without working women, our country and economy are doomed to fail. But if we’re given the resources and opportunities to succeed, we will—and we’ll lift everyone else up in the process. We’ve done it before, and we can do it once more.
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