Larraine Segil

Chairman & CEO | Exceptional Women Awardees Foundation

The Disproportionate and Everlasting Economic Effects of COVID-19 on Women

How this happened and how to fix it.

We now know that women have taken on the greater burden of childcare, homeschooling, and family support during the pandemic. That is not to say that men have done nothing. Men have stepped up too. The career impact, however, according to all studies (Deloitte, Korn Ferry, McKinsey, and Lean In) has been far greater on women, with single mothers faring the worst.

As business leaders, we can make a difference. Primarily, it is an economic issue. (Although much of what you will read posits this as a social issue—it is—but that is not all that is compelling.) Demographically, women in the workforce provide significant economic benefit not only to their employers but also to the economy globally. If they fall out of the pipeline of career advancement, those holes in leadership will be felt for decades. Enough studies have proven that diversity in the workforce creates better profits, so that is no longer debatable. 

A recent study from SpencerStuart presents a comment on private equity. As part of the study, Kim Lew, president and chief executive officer of Columbia Investment Management Company, shared her perspective. “I will say, ‘It looks like you have all white males, and they all went to the same schools. Are you concerned that you might be missing a point of view as demographics change? If this is not a concern for you, why not?’ Nine times out of 10 it is a question of laziness. They have not taken the time to think about it in those terms. I tell them that they will get better returns with more diverse points of view. They might miss some of the more interesting deals without diversity on their teams.”

Women found themselves cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children as well as potentially elder or lonely family members, and dealing with virtual work and no travel.

Supporting this is another study by RockCreek Group, the International Finance Corporation, and Oliver Wyman that found that gender-balanced teams have a 20% higher net internal rate of return.

Women in the workplace, in all kinds of businesses, and in leadership are just plain good business. Many companies were moving in that direction (albeit slowly). Then COVID-19 happened. The social infrastructure collapsed. We all cocooned at home or wherever cocooning was possible—some far away from home. Women found themselves cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children as well as potentially elder or lonely family members, and dealing with virtual work and no travel.

As one female CEO said to me, “I was on a call with investors and closeted myself in one room in the house hoping for a measure of privacy; then my 6-year-old son started banging on anything he could find, and I could not stop him. So, I continued my call yelling at the top of my lungs to be heard. I asked him afterward ‘What were you thinking? Why did you do that?’ He answered, ‘Well if I make enough noise maybe you won’t have a company or a job and then you will have no more calls and more time for me.’” Right. Where to next?

For many women it has been an impossible choice—choose to educate their children or choose to advance their jobs with attention to their careers. No winning answer. Eventually, family had to come first, but then as unemployment loomed, the economics came first. Back and forth, women have been like drowning sailors grabbing at passing life belts.

Why are companies of all sizes not allocating a larger chunk of capital to childcare centers at work, flexible work hours for parents who are involved in child or family care, and job sharing for employees who are temporarily incapacitated or need reduced hours? Having a company cafeteria, gym, or hangout space are seen as important benefits for employees—why not childcare on-site? And let us get some lawyers involved too, to work on laws to waive the immense liability and insurance costs associated with these benefits. During COVID-19, how about a team of tutors visiting employee homes, paid for by the companies, wearing PPE, tutoring outdoors wherever possible to help with homeschooling issues?

Public-school systems across the U.S. have shown their warts and deficiencies during this pandemic. Many parents are shocked at the poor schooling that their children are normally receiving, and childcare has now, for many, morphed into homeschooling. The burden for all parents but especially women who normally work outside the home is unrelenting.

As board member emerita at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), Pacific Southwest Chapter, I recently participated in an outreach to present to high school and community college students what companies actually do and how they can participate in one of the greatest economies in the world. It was enthusiastically received. Why not take that a step farther—corporate tutoring for middle and high school students (i.e., young adults), after school?

Also, there has been so much conversation about empathy and listening, fairness, aligning with stakeholders, and more along those lines. Words are easy, but actions are what counts in the end. All those empathetic leaders out there who “feel your pain” but do nothing different are not the solution to this particular problem. Only actions along the lines of some of those suggested below will make a difference and change the dynamics in the lives of millions of women who have been negatively affected by the pandemic. And, by the way, for those with spouses, their lives will be changed positively too as will the rest of the family and community.

What Are Some Solutions? 

  1. Capex—increase the amount that goes to childcare/after-school services for older children/young adults, an employee benefit that is now an employee need.
  2. Lobby for changes/waivers in liability/insurance laws and costs, which make it prohibitive for small companies to afford childcare or services of this nature.
  3. Opportunity for new startups to whom companies can outsource these efforts. 
  4. New or added employment for school teachers, who could help staff a center tutoring older children or young adults after school and even start preparing the employees of the future.
  5. These benefits act as retention bonuses for parents who are also your employees, and do a lot more societal good as well, putting people first—and you are only as good as your people. Action behind these beliefs is what makes for productivity and loyal employees and leaders.

There is no magic wand to fix this situation. Sadly, I have lived through a period in time when the normal societal infrastructure fell apart—in South Africa. My family emigrated before the Soweto Riots, but after those crucial events, seven grades of elementary, middle, and high school students dropped out of class—permanently—and protested apartheid. Their efforts to overturn the system worked, but their futures were hugely impacted by their truncated schooling. That group of children became adults and the reverberations of their subsequent widespread unemployment and failure of societal support has rumbled through the South African economy. The impact of such societal disruption is long term.

If we do not, as a society, fix the negative impact of the pandemic on women in the workplace as well as the impact of poor schooling, which parents are not able to repair while trying to work remotely, we will see its negative effects for decades to come. We can do it. We must do it.