Caregiving and COVID: Are Women Going to Lose Professional Gains?

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For years, September has brought a steady rhythm to the workplace: As households get back to regular routines and summer trips come to an end, organization-wide meetings, conferences, and trainings come back to life. With the school year starting, many working parents find comfort in the schedule, knowing exactly when and where their children will be and how they will be occupied on any given day.

At least that’s how it used to be.

This fall will be like nothing working parents have previously experienced, though. With students preparing to return to schools across the country next month, many families are still awaiting guidance from local school districts as to how this will look. In districts where guidance has been offered, plans range from full on-site school that leaves parents wondering about safety to fully remote school that leaves parents wondering who will actually be doing the teaching. Hybrid plans somewhere in between divide students on various days with different hours and I can only imagine the number of color-coded sticky notes it will take to track who needs to be where. For the approximately 72% of mothers and 89% of fathers who are employed in the U.S., there are many more questions than answers. Some of these questions include which parent will put a career on hold to navigate this uncertainty.

In addition to mulling over these questions for the well-being of my own family, I have been deeply considering how added caregiving responsibilities—whether balancing distance learning or fewer care options for other dependents—will impact advancements women have made in the workplace over the past 40 years. In fact, I created this brief survey to better understand how women are changing workplace behaviors in light of increased caregiving responsibilities. (If you are a woman who aspires to the next level in your career and have caregiving responsibilities, I would appreciate your response.)

Just like with sending my kiddo back to school, I have a lot more questions than answers: Will women lose the professional gains we have made? (According to a 2015 Pew Research study, women were significantly more likely to leave the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities.) Will employers find solutions to help parents find better balance? Will the fathers stepping up at home be enough to keep women’s careers intact?

In the past 20 years, women’s professional gains at work have been monumental: A surge from 2 to a record-high 37 CEO* slots in Fortune 500 companies is one metric. A closing gender pay gap is another. This has been good for organizations: Countless studies demonstrate that gender-balanced teams are more profitable, more collaborative, and more innovative than homogenous teams.

As organizational leaders consider their return-to-office plans, they cannot neglect how far from normal their employees’ lives remain—especially those with caregiving responsibilities. Continued flexibility, empathy, and communication will be critical in cultivating a workplace that allows employees who are also caregivers to thrive.

And… If you happen to be one of those women balancing career aspirations and caregiving responsibilities, you can help me find some answers: Here’s that survey link again.

*Okay… So this isn’t what this post is about, but I can’t let this one go: 37 out of 500 is just about 7% female representation, while approximately half of the population is female. It is additionally noteworthy that in 2020, not one of those CEOs was a Black or Hispanic woman. Not one. Out of 500. Even without challenges brought from COVID-19, our work toward inclusive, gender-balanced workplaces with women of color adequately represented is far from done.

Article by Jill Nowacki, Humanidei CEO.

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