Women in the Professional Pipeline: yet another casualty of Covid

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the economic landscape and transformed the business environment. It’s a broad swath of changes this time, too, not just a gentle nudge in a new direction. Everything from supply chain bottlenecks and staffing issues to a sudden lurch into fully remote work (which employees aren’t going to give up easily) has made its mark. But amongst all this change, no single issue may carry longer-lasting consequences than the damage to the professional pipeline of women in the ranks of the nation’s businesses.

Why is this happening? It’s about more than the economy and business, of course. When we use those terms, we may not recognize it but what we’re really talking about is people. Families. Individual households and how they earn, manage and spend their financial resources. And right now, those patterns have been disrupted in way we’ve rarely seen before in this country.

That’s because the pandemic has had a much more dramatic impact on women than it has on men. I’m not speaking medically here — men actually seem to be at more risk of serious complications from covid-19. But in just about every other way you gauge it, it’s women who are bearing the brunt of this awful virus.

There’s risk in working. The more you’re in the office (or the restaurant, nursing home, retail store, school bus, etc.) the more likely it is you’ll be exposed to covid and subsequently bring it home to children, parents or others in the household — including those at high risk of complications. As the traditional caregivers for children and aging parents, not to mention disabled siblings and even in-laws who need care, it is women who must be most concerned about limiting the risk of exposure to themselves in order to protect those vulnerable others.

Many women in this position found the need to protect loved ones more urgent than the need to work, and chose to leave the workforce early in the pandemic. For millions of others, though, there wasn’t much choice; with schools implementing virtual learning in place of the traditional classroom, working moms had to find a way to become at-home moms and teachers as well. Anyone who’s tried that has found it doesn’t work, and many quit their jobs as a consequence.

But even that discovery is a luxury, reflecting as it does the option to work from home. For many women whose children are too young or temperamentally unsuited to remain home safely and participate in virtual learning alone during the school day, there was no alternative. Those with jobs that absolutely required their presence in person had to leave the workforce until schools and daycare centers reopened reliably[1]. A year and a half later, we’re not there yet.

Oh yeah — those jobs are concentrated in the fields dominated by women: retail, healthcare, food service, daycare and the similar industries. So more women than men had to leave the workforce by choice to educate and supervise their kids. Women also got laid off more than men[2] when the economy first contracted due to covid in 2020.

That’s due in part to the concentration of women working in sectors that got hit hard by shutdowns. It’s not the only reason though. Women in other industries were less likely than men to be working in management when the pandemic hit, so they bore the brunt of the layoffs[3]. The icing on the cake? Single mothers had it even harder, with the unemployment rate for this demographic tripling between February and May of 2020[4].

Women in middle management may not have faced quite as many layoffs as their peers in entry level frontline worker positions, but millions were laid off or chose (because they felt they had no viable alternative) to leave the workforce nonetheless.

Given that companies struggled with pipeline issues even before the pandemic, we will likely feel the effects for years to come. There’s a significant cost to the careers of women who had to or chose to leave during covid. It’s very hard to opt out of the workforce (either by choice or by necessity) and go back in with the same political capital.

The long-term implications are significant, both for women and for organizations that seek to express their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). With women leaving middle management and lower positions in such great numbers, how will organizations rebuild the pipeline of professional women?

Are we to return to the old norm of senior leadership positions filled uniformly by men? If we don’t want this to become the reality, then business, government and non-profit leaders must make clear plans and take strategic action now to prevent it from happening.

[1]Collins, C., Ruppanner, L., Landivar, L. C., & Scarborough, W. (2021, January 21). The Gendered Consequences of a Weak Infrastructure of Care: School Reopening Plans and Parents’ Employment During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/women-hit-hardest-coronavirus-layoffs-are-we-heading-she-cession-n1226256

[3] https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/QF-Breadwinner-Mothers-by-Race-FINAL.pdf

[4] https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/QF-Breadwinner-Mothers-by-Race-FINAL.pdf