As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and attention shifts to rebuilding and fully reopening the US economy, there is one challenge employers and educators must address — the COVID-19 “she-cession” and the significant number of women who have left the workforce during the past year.
The pandemic has slowed and, in many instances, reversed recent progress women have made when it comes to economic empowerment and representation in the workplace. This is partly due to the fact that women are more likely to work in the industries hardest hit by COVID-19 and that many have been forced to assume additional caregiving and household responsibilities.
More than five million American women have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, and women’s participation in the US labor force this past March was at its lowest level since 1988. Globally, women have lost a staggering $800 billion in income due to COVID-19, according to a recent Oxfam International report.
And the losses may continue. A 2020 Women in the Workplace study describes a potential looming crisis for corporate America, as 1 in 4 women considers whether to downshift her career or leave the workplace altogether. This has major implications, not just for individual earning power and the number of women currently occupying leadership roles but also for the future pipeline of women leaders, role models, and mentors.
As the job market rebounds, women must not be left behind. To do that effectively, there must be a greater emphasis on well-being and how work is structured. The pandemic has shown that employers can be innovative and flexible when it comes to work hours and modality. Educators and business and community leaders have an important role to play in developing and implementing support systems that empower women to navigate their multiple roles.
In addition, women thrive in workplace cultures that empower an attitude of leading and living an integrative life — especially during times of crisis. They excel when they can participate in training programs and networking opportunities, and when they can access mentors and allies — experiences that help women become more assured about their skills and abilities. The confidence gap needs to be addressed.
Early on in my career, I witnessed the phenomenon of imposter syndrome — where people experience a sense of inadequacy in spite of their accomplishments and skill sets — firsthand. Though they received the same education and training, women were often less confident than their male counterparts when pursuing job opportunities, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields. They were also more likely to skip applying for a job or promotion unless they met 90 to 100 percent of the qualifications, while men were comfortable meeting half of the listed qualifications. In addition, women were less likely to publicly promote themselves and their accomplishments.
As president of a women-centered institution whose mission is to empower and prepare young women for their life’s work, I often think about how to close and ultimately erase the confidence gap.
Research shows that this gap first appears among girls in late elementary or middle school. Thus, elementary and secondary education systems must be better equipped to tackle gender bias and bolster confidence. Creating educational spaces that allow girls’ accomplishments to shine is vital, as is ensuring that these spaces do not downplay their skills in traditionally male-dominated subjects like math and science.
Higher-education leaders should also be intentional about how we think about and prepare young women for their life’s work. Women are involved in their careers, but they also have side gigs, families, civic responsibilities, and more. Important skills such as professional preparation, personal branding, networking, interviewing, and negotiating should be woven into the curriculum so that students are confident and prepared for each phase of their careers.
The confidence gap has real implications for a US economy that depends on the significant contributions of women. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, it can be easy to mistake confidence for competence, giving men an advantage, and organizations often do so. By acknowledging and addressing the confidence gap and committing to the careers of women, employers and educators can help alleviate the enormous strain of the pandemic and build a stronger economy that works better for all.
Lynn Perry Wooten is president of Simmons University.