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OPINION

We can’t afford to let women fall through the economy’s cracks

In September, 69 percent of women said the COVID-19 pandemic was keeping them from returning to work for reasons other than downsizing or business closure.

Kourtney McGowan, who was furloughed when her workplace shut down in March 2020, with her son, in Stockton, Calif. in June.JIM WILSON/NYT

In 2020, the same year a record number of women were elected to Congress and the first woman was elected vice president, COVID-19 had a devastating and potentially permanent impact on women in the workforce. The percentage of women participating in the US labor market in October 2020 was the lowest since 1988, and of the 9.8 million jobs that have not yet returned, 55 percent belong to women. In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.

Before the pandemic, women in Massachusetts were participating in the workforce at increasing rates, surpassing the national rate by 2019. COVID-19 brought them back to where they were at the end of the Great Recession in 2009. More than 40 percent of female employees in Massachusetts work in education, health care, and social assistance, sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Add the lack of quality child care options brought about by the closure of schools and early education programs, and you have a perfect storm forcing women to face gut-wrenching choices.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2020, when schools typically reopen, a staggering 69 percent of women said the pandemic was keeping them from returning to work for reasons other than downsizing or business closure. In a survey conducted by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts last fall, 67 percent of employers listed lack of child care as a primary concern for their workforces.

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Fortunately, organizations in Massachusetts are taking a leadership role in addressing the ongoing challenges facing women in the workforce. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, the Commonwealth Institute, and the newly formed Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education are focused on advancing important changes, such as pay and representation equity. Even before the pandemic, women on average made about 81 cents for every dollar earned by male counterparts. Women and men should have the same options to pursue a career and raise a family, but the pandemic has laid bare the reality that women are expected to take greater responsibility for their families without sufficient support.

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Critical steps must be taken to achieve greater workforce balance in the long term: We must ensure that jobs traditionally filled by women have more extensive protections, and create a path for more balanced representation of women in industries like information technology, transportation, and construction — fields where female representation is still limited. However, immediate action is needed to ensure progress made by women does not erode further.

AIM is calling on employers to make a commitment now to review their practices and policies and make immediate, substantive adjustments to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women and other caregivers in the workforce. Specific recommendations include:

▪ Commit to providing pay increases and advancement steps to women and other caregivers on time rather than penalizing those who have been on leave or working limited hours.

▪ Extend the time workers can be on leave to coincide with the duration of the pandemic.

▪ Give hiring preference to former workers, if their experience and skills allow, who were required to leave the workplace due to family demands.

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▪ Extend the time that returning workers can bridge tenure for benefits and other considerations to coincide with the full duration of the pandemic.

▪ Listen to individual employees about their specific needs and expectations, and don’t make assumptions about what each woman or caregiver can or cannot do.

▪ Institute practices that reduce conflict with remote schooling such as not holding meetings before 9 a.m. or at lunch, when children need assistance.

These steps alone will not fully offset the impact of the pandemic on women; they will, however, demonstrate the business community’s commitment to supporting the Commonwealth’s skilled female labor force. Massachusetts cannot afford to go back to business as usual as the state and national economies begin to gain traction, especially when it comes to how businesses and public policy treat working women.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented responsibility for the Commonwealth and the nation to acknowledge decreasing numbers of female workforce participation for what they are — gaps in the system, allowing available and accessible talent to fall straight through the cracks. Failure to act now will have long-term, devastating impacts on the Massachusetts economy.

Joanne Hilferty is chair of the Board of Associated Industries of Massachusetts and president/CEO of Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. Dan Kenary is immediate past chair of the AIM Board and CEO/cofounder of Mass Bay Brewing Company. Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of government affairs at AIM.