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How Much Did the Pandemic Really Cost Women’s Progress?

Lindsay Tigar  |  March 7, 2022

We know that the impact of COVID on women’s careers and earnings was stark. But what was the cost, really, and how can we get back on track?

What was the true cost to women during the pandemic? For starters, jobs lost during COVID may have set women’s progress in the workplace back by 10 years, according to a recent Northwestern survey, and in terms of earnings, women worldwide lost $800 billion in income, according to data from Oxfam International. These numbers are frightening and disheartening, especially given that progress for women needed desperately to move in the other direction — we were already pacing far behind men in terms of salary, leadership positions held, and wealth/retirement savings built. Given all this, we wanted to truly dig into the numbers and look at the pandemic’s impact on women nationwide— how bad are things, really? And what can we do to gain our momentum back? 

First, let’s analyze what happened as the world shut down for two years (and counting):

Professionally: The Great Resignation 

It’s hard to miss the headlines on “The Great Resignation,” the phenomenon wherein a record-number of professionals mass-exited their jobs during 2021. While some of these moves were by choice, for women, resignations were disproportionately borne out of need, explains Kristen Carlisle, general manager at Betterment’s 401(k) business. According to one of their recent survey, women were twice as likely as men to have left their careers in the past 12 months. “Much of this can be attributed to women temporarily leaving the workforce for personal reasons such as caretaking responsibilities with children or elderly relatives, or simply burnout which meant putting their careers on the back burner,” she explains.

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Financially: Savings Discrepancies 

With the loss of income from lost jobs and layoffs, many women and men felt their wallets stretched thin during this time. However, the financial setbacks felt during this era were more detrimental to women than to men. According to a Betterment survey, only 37% of women now rate themselves as financially stable, compared to 61% of men. Astoundingly, 41% of women don’t have money set aside for an emergency compared to 25% of men who would say the same. “Not having a safety net can create financial anxiety for women when unexpected life events happen such as unemployment, critical illness, or unexpected caregiving needs—all circumstances that disproportionately impact women,” Carlisle says. 

Emotionally: High Burnout Rates

The numbers can tell us volumes about finance and progress, but the pandemic’s mental and emotional health impact is much harder to quantify. Generally speaking, Carlisle says women tend to experience higher exhaustion rates, with 37% of female employees saying ‘burnout’ was their primary motivation for leaving their job, compared to just 24% of men. “Women who may have never experienced mental health struggles before were impacted by the pandemic’s many demands on them at work and in their personal life, resulting in burnout,” she says.

Health: Preventive Measures Decreased

Another concerning pandemic ripple effect is the pandemic’s impact on women’s health. A recent study from Kaiser Family Foundation found that women are more likely to have gone without healthcare during the pandemic than men, which could translate to missed screenings and delayed diagnoses, says Deborah H. Telman, general counsel for Organon. And, for women of color, who already faced significant healthcare disparities before the pandemic, the impact has been even more pronounced.

“Black women experienced a 2.3-year drop in life expectancy, and maternal health disparities for Black women are expected to worsen as well,” she continues. “When women are unable to prioritize their own health needs, the disparity gap widens, having an economic impact ultimately.”

So, how can women move forward from here?  

All of these setbacks are concerning, but thankfully there are proactive and meaningful ways to move forward. Here’s how to start making inroads for change in your community of women and in your own life.

Prioritize financial wellness

While many women know what it looks like to prioritize their physical and mental health, Carlisle reminds us that our financial health is just as important. Much like hiring a personal trainer, a nutritionist or booking a doctor’s appointment, there’s value in speaking with a trusted financial advisor who can offer one-on-one support. If you choose to work with someone, make certain they are a fiduciary who puts your financial needs first. 

Encourage an equal share of home and childcare duties 

Women need help at home more than ever. Mothers and fathers need to work towards a place where both partners have an equal responsibility for home maintenance and childcare duties, says Yasmin Monfared, the head of insights at Forage. “Momentum is building with organizations like MenCare — which advocates for more equitable partnerships, promoting paid parental leave and supporting men’s caregiving,” she says. We can also take notes from companies like Deloitte, which provide men and women equal paid parental leave. Encourage your company to update its policies to match modern times — and advocate for yourself and your family.

Surround yourself with inspiring women 

Though it may seem like soft advice, the company you keep has a significant impact on your sense of self, your confidence, and your ability to move forward. That’s why Monfared says to get yourself a mentor if you need a boost. Or, if you’re able to offer advice, find a rising star — especially a Gen Z professional, since they’re our future female leaders. “Let’s lay the groundwork to raise confident, skilled women who know how to navigate the corporate world, so if another pandemic arrives in our lifetime, they will not have a setback in their careers,” she says.

Know your value and assess your impact

Women must understand the value of their skills and experiences and how they support their ability to create impact, says Dr. Rosina Racioppi, CEO and president of WOMEN Unlimited Inc.

“With this focus, women can advocate for themselves, ensuring that key leaders and decision-makers understand their value,” she continues. “So often we hear from women that they want their work to speak for them. This is a dangerous mindset. It always was. Now it can be deadly to a career. I remind women that leaders need to understand the talent available to solve their organization’s challenges. If leaders are not aware of your skills or interests, they cannot offer opportunities.”

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