• Olivia Graham

Pandemic Pressures

How the already complex female professional experience has become a lot more complicated

It’s no secret that up until the last 10 years or so, women who were already professionals or were trying to launch their career were facing a daily fight to “prove” they deserved to be considered for a role based on the merits of their achievements, as their male counterparts were. Thanks to the tireless work of countless women throughout history, we have seen great progress made, proving that women are both crucial team members and leaders. Gone are the days where our highest aspiration was simply to share the same space as our male counterparts. We are finally able to fight for a seat at the table, a voice that is valued and comparable compensation. The keyword there is fight because although these things are now in reach, we still have so far to go. It is not only up to the women of today’s workforce, but the men as well to fight for a better professional future for the next generation.

In recent years we had been seeing the most promising numbers yet reflecting women in leadership positions. There was finally some female representation in Fortune 500 c-suites, as well as a growing number of women-founded and -run small businesses. Programs were being created with the sole purpose to support the needs of female entrepreneurs and professionals, and better yet they were seeing success. While we celebrate the progress made towards achieving gender parity and truly inclusive workplaces, we must acknowledge a tremendous threat to its longevity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly ravaged communities across the globe, seemingly equally dangerous to all in its path. However, with growing amounts of data being collected, we now see that this pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, those who are differently-abled and women. An American Progress article stated, “In September 2020, 865,000 women left the labor force—more than four times the number of men who left the labor force and more than three times the number of jobs gained by women that month." That does not take away from the terrible impact this disease has imposed on individuals outside of those groups, it simply heightens the burden felt by those within them.

An ongoing 6-year Women in the Workplace study, conducted by McKinsey & Company, has shared staggering data that demonstrates some of the anticipated long-term outcomes of this period. Some are expected of course, such as burnout from feeling pressure to be constantly available or productive with no boundary between work and home. Others may be less obvious, like the fact that “women - especially women of color - are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during” this crisis. Not to mention that working moms already had what McKinsey refers to as a “double shift,” clocking out of their day job only to start their shifts as a mother at home. Even working mothers who have the support of a partner to help lighten some of the load are feeling burnt out, not to mention those single mothers who are left to wear all hats at all times.

In the immortal words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” It is impossible to fully comprehend the repercussions of losing a quarter of our female representation in the workplace. As stated in the McKinsey study, “if women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions” who are needed now more than they have ever been. This crisis has certainly presented no shortage of obstacles and challenges, but it has also presented us with a pivotal opportunity. Across the globe, leaders who had promised that their company would and could never function on a remote basis, have risen to the challenge and proven how much they are capable of under extreme circumstances.

I can think of no more urgent motivation to rise again to a challenge than the threat of losing the already limited representation of women as professionals. McKinsey continued that “if companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace- they can retain the employees most impacted by today’s crises and create more opportunities for women to succeed in the long term.” Organizations would be wise to consider the long-term effect of their response to this call to action, not only for themselves but for society and the decades to come.