According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, women lost 140,000 jobs in December of 2020, which underlines the disastrous economic impact that the coronavirus continues to have on working women and their families.
The pandemic has affected everyone and created more hardship than usual for our country’s most vulnerable populations. Black and Latina women experienced unemployment levels that were higher than women’s overall unemployment rate, even as systemic health and social inequities put people of color at increased risk from Covid-19.
Additionally, women have been forced to cut back on hours or leave the workplace in droves due to the ongoing closure of schools and daycare centers. And for lower income women who work outside the home or single mothers who alone bear the burden of childcare, the situation is dire.
Exacerbating a Situation Already Out of Balance
Stepping back or down from work to attend to family needs may sound like a personal choice, but when the gender wage gap makes women’s income feel more disposable than a man’s (or a higher-earning partner’s), it’s often the obvious choice. For many dual-career families, it’s simply easier to opt for the path of least resistance: the traditional norm of a career-focused man and a family-focused woman. This is especially true if the man (or partner) is older, has a head start in his career, and earns a higher salary. It can be difficult to break the cycle: the man has more opportunities to earn more, and it’s harder for women to catch up.
Women’s work – and women – just isn’t as valued as men’s. I loathe saying this because for crying out loud, it’s 2021, and aren’t we just over this by now? Haven’t women fought hard enough and long enough for equal rights and equal pay?
We’ve Got a Long Way to Go, Baby
When I was expecting my first child in 2002, I kept the news of my pregnancy hidden from my employer, a husband and wife team, until I was well after twenty weeks along. Part of me was just extremely private, but I was also keenly aware of how I would be viewed differently once they heard the news. Though I loved my job and the business owners, I knew the focus would immediately shift from what I was capable of professionally to how my new role as a mother would affect my work.
As a small business, they’d never had to manage a maternity leave before and the concept of where an employee should pump milk was met with, “I dunno – how about you use the bathroom?” They said they didn’t really need to address such issues and figured they probably wouldn’t have anyone else who would ever be in my “situation.” After the birth of my second child in 2004, I left that job to start my own business.
When talking with my own clients, I was hell bent on never mentioning that I had children. If clients knew I was a mother, they instantly stopped seeing me as a professional and only saw a mommy. And in the business world, this can be the death knell for women. Some clients felt they were justified in paying me less and worse – respecting me less.
The lack of respect for women’s work doesn’t just come from clients or empathy-lacking employers. At a swim meet a few summers ago, my husband and I were in conversation with a group of parents who were new to the neighborhood. One man introduced himself and his soft-spoken wife, then said that she had recently lost her job as a preschool teacher. He added, “But that’s OK, because she didn’t make very much money.” The wife’s expressionless face said everything: on top of the pain and embarrassment of losing her job, this woman had also lost her husband’s respect – if she ever even had it to begin with.
Not long after, I ran into the mother of one of our former sitters and asked how Nicole was doing. Now in her early twenties, I knew that Nicole had recently married and was in graduate school. I started to say how excited I was for Nicole when she abruptly cut me off and said, “I don’t know why she wants to get her Master’s degree. She’s just going to end up having babies soon and then that’ll be that.”
Ongoing gender inequality leads to discrimination, anger, and resentment – both at home and at work. When people belittle women’s work, it takes everyone down a notch: the wife who doesn’t feel like she’s contributing; the professional daughter who feels like she’s a disappointment. Imagine telling the 140,000 women who lost their jobs in December that it “doesn’t really matter” because they’re “just going to have babies soon,” or they “didn’t make that much money anyway.”
Is There Any Good News?
Being an entrepreneur or business owner may put you in a stronger position than many to weather the wages of the pandemic. As a decision-maker, you’ve already taken your destiny into your own hands to determine the course of your own future. When you call the shots, you often have more earning potential than when you report to someone else.
While being a business owner is a huge risk that comes with an enormous responsibility to others, you also have the opportunity to help close the widening gap of inequity that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. Women who are breaking glass ceilings have an obligation to turn back around and help others. We need to support other women who don’t have this advantage, and especially women of color who continue to face the double discrimination of gender and race.
How Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners Can Help
To get women – and our economy – back to work, we have to be willing to change the way we do business. In addition to offering better pay, better benefits, and more gender-neutral paid leave, here are a few options to consider:
- Be flexible. If it’s had any value, the pandemic has shown us how effective people can be when working from home. As we’ve seen in Zoom after Zoom, the lines between our professional and personal lives have become blurred and we’re getting glimpses into people’s full selves: the baby held on the lap, the dog barking in the background. What was once seen as unprofessional is now simply bringing our whole selves to our work and in everything we do and affirming that work life and home life can coexist. Successful companies will evolve by loosening their grip on in-person office requirements and the typical nine-to-five workday and five-day workweek.
- Support each other emotionally. Stick up for each other. Listen to your own language and that of those around you. Notice micro aggressions (which are really just aggressions). Are you supporting the people in your life and encouraging them to follow their dreams? Or do your words and actions say otherwise? Smart women who don’t get what they need – financially or emotionally – will move on and find it elsewhere, and may even become your competition.
- Financially support businesses owned by women and people of color. Aim to be more conscious of the restaurants and services you support and be conscious of seeking out alternative options. Raising up others lifts us all higher.
- Set up food and clothing collections to benefit your local community or look into alternative ways to help the most vulnerable. Since many in-person volunteer programs have been suspended during the pandemic, our family has been making batches of sack lunches to bring to our local homeless shelter. It’s especially important to give back year-round and not just during the holidays. Hunger, after all, knows no season.
The pandemic has piled onto a deck already stacked deck against women. Without working women, it will take decades for our economy to recover. But if we work together to offer women the resources needed to succeed, we can dismantle the deck and come back stronger than ever.
Kris Martinez is Owner and Creative Director of Martinez Creative Group and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Enterprising Women Magazine. Please click the logo to go to Enterprising Women Magazine: