From the Summer 2021 issue of Insight Magazine.
COVID-19 is forcing women out of the workforce in record numbers. What do we lose when women leave the workplace, and how can we make it possible for them to stay?
Early in 2020, Sandra Adam became one of the 2.3 million women that would lose their jobs over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the following job hunt, she questioned her path forward. “I was looking for a leadership role, but the only available positions were lower-level,” says Adam, who is a CPA with more than 20 years of experience in forensic accounting and consulting. “It really made me question if I wanted to stay in public accounting because of how difficult it had been to build my career as a woman—and how quickly it ended.”
Adam’s layoff happened early in the pandemic, when the numbers were still accumulating and the effects still unclear. But by December 2020, the COVID-19 economy’s effect on women in the workforce was clear—and disturbing: Of the 140,000 jobs cut that month, every single one belonged to a woman. In fact, that month women lost 156,000 jobs—while men gained 16,000. According to analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, throughout the course of the pandemic, women have lost 5.4 million jobs, 1 million more jobs than men. And according to Oxfam International, women lost $800 billion in income in 2020 alone.
“This loss absolutely sets us back from a number of perspectives, including participation, lost innovation, and economic impact,” says Dorri McWhorter, CPA, CEO and president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and immediate past board chair of the Illinois CPA Society. “From a company’s perspective, it’s devastating. Organizations need to prioritize retaining women in the workforce as they look toward their own recovery.”
Why Women Leave
While many women lost their jobs to pandemic-related layoffs or furloughs, a new crisis for working women is looming. A recent study from McKinsey found that one in four women are considering stepping back from their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, compared to one in five men. This is a dramatic shift: Pre-pandemic research has never shown women voluntarily leaving the workforce at higher rates than men.
“Early on, I remember two fairly prominent CFOs—women who had been in that role for a long time—saying, ‘I need to help my employer find my successor because I’m leaving the workforce to care for my family right now,’” says JoAnna Simek, CPA, MST, partner at BKD CPAs & Advisors and an Illinois CPA Society 2021 Women to Watch award winner. “These are executives, and they feel like they can’t stay on.”
McKinsey’s research also showed that women in senior management positions, Black women, and working mothers face the biggest challenges in maintaining their career tracks or keeping their jobs.
What makes it possible for some women to continue working, and even move forward in their careers, while others are laid off or forced to opt out? The same factors that have kept women from the workforce or caused them to leave in the past. Consider the outcomes of pay inequity during the pandemic: If one spouse makes significantly more than the other, whose career will be sacrificed to stay home and care for children or aging parents? It may make financial sense in that moment to keep the bigger paycheck, but it hurts everyone in the long run.
“Study after study shows that achieving gender parity across a number of factors will yield trillions of dollars. Pick a GDP, pick a country—it always improves, period,” McWhorter says.
The Emotional Toll
For women in the early stages of their careers, remote work has made gaining key skills and experiences more difficult. “It’s challenging for people who are newer, as so much learning and growth comes from observing the senior people in the organization,” says Hollis Hanson-Pollock, CPA, audit senior manager at Crowe and Illinois CPA Society 2020 Women to Watch award winner. “Observation is a huge part of learning how to communicate and interact in a business environment.”
Remote work offers another unique challenge for workers at any stage of their career, with or without families: the always-on dilemma. “In the CPA world, we’ve adapted well to working remotely, but it leads to a sense of always having to be available,” Simek says. “You can’t leave the office, close the door, and not think about work. Your laptop is always there on the kitchen table. It creates a lot of stress for people.”
The long-term effects of pandemic stress, or post-COVID-19 stress disorder, are still unknown, but they are apparent and far-reaching. Here, too, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation research reports that there’s a gender gap, with 53 percent of women reporting a negative impact on their mental health compared to 37 percent of men. That gap is even wider in mothers versus fathers. The same report found that 49 percent of women versus 40 percent of men say their lives have been majorly disrupted by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 amplified everything, and it’s not just limited to women with families.” Simek says. “All of those gender issues that were already in play pre-pandemic just became magnified.”
Effects of Increasing Inequity
Over the last 50 years, much work has gone into bridging the gaps between working men and women, but COVID-19 showed exactly how fragile that bridge was. As parental responsibilities increased when schools closed, the burden on women increased significantly more than the burden on men: An October 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that among employed parents who were working from home, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they had to juggle a lot of child-care responsibilities while working, and working mothers with children younger than 12 at home were more likely than fathers to say it had been difficult for them to handle child care during the coronavirus outbreak. The result? Burnout, unfeasible choices, and women leaving the workforce.
“The burnout happens because women are not getting any separation from home duties while being at work, because now they’re at home, working. It’s impossible,” McWhorter explains.
While working mothers have been hit hard, unmarried or childless women face obstacles as well: The glass ceiling of advancement becomes that much thicker when women in senior management leave the workforce. Women are still underrepresented as senior leaders and partners in the accounting profession, and without their presence as mentors and advocates, women just beginning their careers face a dearth of role models.
“Having mentors is not just an important part of your development and training, it’s also a big part of your job satisfaction,” Hanson-Pollock says. “It’s a big problem when your organization loses female leaders. When you’re thinking about your own career path, it’s helpful to see people you can identify with at the top.”
“There’s a real uneasiness about what the future holds and what that means for your own career progression,” says Lauren Bruce, CPA, CIA, director of internal controls at Abbvie and an Illinois CPA Society 2020 Women to Watch award winner. “In March of 2020, when we went into lockdown, I was about six months pregnant and had a four-year-old at home with me. Fortunately, when I got pregnant my mentors didn’t automatically say, ‘Well, I assume you’re in a career slowdown now.’ They said, ‘Let’s communicate and keep going.’ There wasn’t an assumption that I stopped wanting to grow and advance because I have two kids in a pandemic. I had my second daughter in June of 2020, took a nice maternity leave, and have been back at work—remotely—since September.”
There’s a bigger picture to look at beyond the individual impact of pandemic-induced career absence among women. “The talent loss is enormous,” Simek says. “That is the biggest problem: the loss of highly trained, highly technical, really smart people in the industry.”
With loss of talent comes loss of innovation. “Without the perspectives of women in the workforce due to this significant loss, we will absolutely lose out on innovation and ideas that help advance society,” McWhorter says. “There are also long-term impacts from an economic perspective: earning losses, less spending, and less retirement savings, all of which have a ripple effect.”
The accounting profession and individual organizations can respond in ways that exacerbate the issues, or finally help solve them. “Leadership embracing flexibility and understanding what it means to be a working mother makes a huge difference,” Bruce says. McWhorter also notes the importance of calls for flexibility from the top: “We’ve been extremely mindful of how we schedule meetings and have been asking our people to work with their leaders to accommodate their needs because we know there’s zero wiggle room now,” she says.
The flexibility offered must come without stigma, or the positive effects will be short-lived. “When my daughter was young, flexibility was an option, but came with potential repercussions,” Adam admits. The problem is an outdated model. “What we’ve done in the past is slightly tweak things,” McWhorter says. “I don’t think it’s fair to tweak the margins anymore. We must reimagine the world we’re now placed in—what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
To reimagine and recreate the structure of work—including mental health support, flexibility in scheduling and workspace, and modernized practical benefits—requires organizational openness and originality. “Visible relatable leadership is so important to show people many different paths to become successful,” Simek says. “People think it’s option A or option B. I’m in my job 110 percent, or I’m totally out. They need visible examples of people who have successfully gone with option C or option D.”
The pandemic has created a scenario of forced change, which can be funneled into forward momentum if organizations will listen to what women are telling them. “We need women articulating what they need, because they have a lived experience no one else has,” McWhorter says. Bruce agrees: “It requires being honest with those around you about what you need as well as knowing that what you need can change on any given day.”
There’s a risk in such honesty, just as there’s risk in organizational change. But a quick cost-benefit analysis is clear: Losing women in the workforce hurts the industry, the economy, and the women themselves. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the gender equity work that has been done, but also created the potential for a massive shift. The future of work is wide open, and organizations have been offered the perfect opportunity to put an end to the impossible situation women have inherited and improve the workforce for everyone.
“Throughout my career, I’ve helped women get through all of it as much as I could. Because how do you choose between your family and your career? That’s the ridiculous choice we often have to make,” Adam says. After several months of uncertainty, she began working independently in real estate forensic accounting and consulting. “Why does a woman have to make this choice?” she asks. “That’s the heart of the problem.”
Annie Mueller is an experienced Puerto Rico-based financial writer. She is a frequent contributor to various industry publications.