Women Leaving The Workforce: Another Unsettling COVID-19 Side Effect

One in four women are considering leaving the workforce as a result of COVID-19, but perhaps now more than ever, companies can't lose focus on gender equality. 

As if our plates aren’t full enough with a global pandemic, we have a new crisis on our hands. Recent studies are shining a light on a scary trend: COVID-19 has hit women hard, especially those in the tech industry.

The year started off on a positive note -- there were more women than ever before in senior-level positions across corporate America.

Women in senior vice president roles increased from 23 percent in 2015 to 28 percent at the beginning of 2020. Women in the C-suite also rose from 17 percent five years ago to 21 percent, according to the annual Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org that interviewed more than 400,000 employees.

But, all that great progress is now at risk of falling off a cliff. One in four women in the same survey said they were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely in the midst of the pandemic.

Research from CNN Business found that 617,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September. Of those, half were between the ages of 35 and 44. By comparison, only 78,000 men dropped out of the workforce last month.

But even for the women who have stayed or are planning to stay, the news doesn't get better. Women are 1.6 times more likely than men to be laid-off or furloughed today, according to a recent survey of approximately 600 tech executives from TrustRadius, a software review company.

What it all means

It's not surprising, nor is it a coincidence that a staggering number of women left the workforce last month, as children started going back to school. Or in many cases, began distance learning from home.

The ever-evasive work/ life balance has always plagued women in the workplace. In many cases, this is because work around the home and childcare typicall fall more heavily on women when compared to their male partners. But COVID-19 threw an even bigger wrench into the works by bringing everyone under one roof. Most women had to (and still are) work from home in keeping with various stay-at-home mandates, and many children also are distance-learning at least part-time or full-time.

It was bad enough sitting in virtual videoconferences for hours a day and managing others at a distance, all while trying to meet your own deadlines. Add to that having to teach or supervise students at the same time, also at home. No wonder many women are overwhelmed and are putting their own careers on the back burner.

I don't even have children, and I'm overwhelmed just writing about this.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of LeanIn.Org, said it best: "If we had a panic button, we'd be hitting it." We should be concerned about this trend, and so should employers. According to McKinsey, if one in four women do leave the workforce, it would result in an estimated $180 billion annual potential earnings loss.

I wish there was a more positive way to end this article. But there isn't.

The truth is, leaving the workforce could be the right move for some women. But, it probably isn't for one in four female executives.

These are sobering statistics and a major trend that businesses need to watch carefully. More than ever, companies -- especially those in tech -- can't lose the focus on gender equality that has gained some great momentum in recent years. And it goes without saying, but women in the workplace need allies more than ever. That means both men and women should be stepping up to support and encourage their colleagues. 

That, and maybe buy the working moms in your life some takeout for dinner. Or a nice bottle of red wine for that elusive and very deserved downtime.

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