Updated: Jul 15, 2020
By Shelby Matsumura
Have you heard of Equal Pay Day? If not, let us clue you in. Equal Pay Day falls on the date that marks the number of extra months into the new year that women must work to make what their male counterparts did in the previous year. For example, this year, Equal Pay Day fell on March 31, meaning that women needed to work three extra months into 2020 to make the same amount of money that male workers earned in 2019. This disparity occurs because women only make 85 cents for every dollar that a man makes, with this number varying across the country. The gender pay gap is even more significant for women of color, such as African American women who make 62 cents to the dollar and Latina women who make 54 cents to the dollar. According to Fortune, the Coronavirus has only worsened the financial impact of the gender pay gap for women.
Before the pandemic, professional women were not only confronting the gender pay gap, but many of these working women were also raising children. In 2017, the National Women’s Law Center released a fact sheet sharing that nearly 7 in 10 (69.9%) American women with children under 18 years of age are part of the labor force. Juggling a career in addition to taking care of a family can be a challenging obstacle for many women in the workforce, but resources such as childcare services or family members to assist with their children helped immensely. However, due to the abundance of layoffs and the closing of non-essential businesses such as schools or daycares, the Coronavirus has taken a devastating and disproportionate toll on women in the workplace.
Women make up a large share of the labor force in the industries that have seen some of the most job cuts and layoffs during this time, in addition to women holding many occupations that are on the front lines of the pandemic. While jobs across a variety of industries were negatively impacted by the Coronavirus, the leisure and hospitality sector was hit the hardest by a loss of 7.7 million jobs or 47% of all jobs. Healthcare also saw a decline of 1.4 million jobs due to the limitations set on the services they could provide, such as fewer elective and routine procedures, as reported by CNBC. Women make up a large share of the workforce within these industries. In 2018, women made up 87% of registered nurses and 71% of cashiers. Further, women in general accounted for 55% of all layoffs during the pandemic. In the past, recessions have mostly hit male-dominated industries like manufacturing or construction, but the Coronavirus has had a different effect on our labor force by eliminating a vast array of jobs with high female employment rates.
While many women have lost their jobs due to this pandemic, some have been able to continue working because they work at essential businesses like grocery stores or hospitals. However, on top of these women working on the frontlines against the Coronavirus, many are also expected to balance this work with the needs of caring for their families. With schools going virtual and childcare services becoming severely limited or closing altogether, female professionals have had to confront the scary decision of how they will take care of their families while ensuring they are financially secure.
Although the makeup of each family is unique and different, women generally take on the majority of childcare responsibilities in heteronormative environments. According to the Pew Research Center, even in households where both mother and father work full-time, women are more likely than men to manage the schedules and activities of their children, in addition to taking care of them when they’re sick. Furthermore, NPR reports that there are around 60 million single mothers in the United States who are struggling to find childcare assistance from professionals or from family members who can no longer visit due to the stay-at-home orders. As a result, this pandemic has made many women have to choose between their careers and their families.
Of course, if a female employee has to take time off or even quit her job so she can provide care for her loved ones, she is making a tough but necessary decision. The women making these sacrifices should be supported and understood as trying to do what’s best for their family at this time. Unfortunately, instead of a welcome back party, these women may face a pay penalty upon returning to the workforce. In a study conducted by PayScale, people who leave a job and then come back to a new job will receive an offer 7% less than what someone currently in that position would make. Thus, if women have to leave their jobs to physically care for their families, they are likely to experience this pay penalty upon returning to work. They would be losing out on their original salary by 7%, which was already disproportionately low to begin with. This scenario demonstrates a serious concern over the Coronavirus widening the gender pay gap in the long run. If over half of the layoffs were comprised of women and these women try and re-join the workforce after the pandemic, they will be making even less than what they were making pre-COVID-19.
These concerns could present some serious, long-term challenges for professional women post-COVID-19. Nevertheless, some say that the Coronavirus may also create positive change for women in the workplace. Most businesses that have been able to stay open have had their employees work from home for the past 3-4 months. As a result of this pandemic, employers may be more flexible with their scheduling practices and allow more opportunities to work from home in the future. This could benefit women in that working mothers may have a better chance at striking a healthy work/life balance, but until schools and daycares begin to open again, they don’t really have that option of returning to work in the first place.
Another potential effect that the Coronavirus poses for good is a better division of labor between spouses in their homes. Men, who were usually at work throughout the day, are now spending more time at home with their kids and actively participating in childcare activities and other household responsibilities. For some families, COVID-19 may have triggered a complete reversal of traditional gender roles where women, who held essential jobs like being a doctor, had to go to work while their husbands stayed at home to care for their children. While the erosion of gender norms would help with gender equality and alleviate disparities like the pay gap, such cultural shifts take a long time to normalize and will most likely not come to fruition just because of this pandemic.
Hopefully, in reading this article or from experience in general, employers understand the negative impact of gender inequality in the workplace. However, just in case, some are still wondering, “so what?” Gender-based discrimination is also prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII states, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer … to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Additionally, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 is another federal law that expands Title VII to protect against wage discrimination.
According to The Bohm Law Group, gender discrimination can take many forms, such as:
· Refusing to promote a qualified employee because she’s a woman
· Paying a man and a woman differently even though they hold the same position within the company
· Different treatment in socio-business relations, like men golfing or playing poker with clients
· Laying off female employees because they are pregnant or planning on getting pregnant
If an employee can prove that decisions were being made about their employment based on their gender, they could have a valid discrimination claim against their employer.
Regardless of the legal concerns, business owners should strive for greater diversity and gender equality in the workplace. Once the pandemic ends and women are able to return to work, there are steps that employers can take to promote gender equality. Here are a few from the Society for Human Resource Management(SHRM).
· Educate Senior Leadership – Anyone on the board of directors or in the senior leadership team should be well-informed of legal issues associated with gender discrimination. They should know how to spot it, report it and take the appropriate next steps to protect both employee and the company. SHRM shares that businesses, with gender diversity in their senior leadership, tend to outperform their competitors.
· Hire and Promote Women – This practice can be accomplished through ensuring that minimum job requirements aren’t so high as to exclude women who have been denied leadership opportunities in the past because of their gender. We are not asking that standards be lowered, but that they are assessed realistically and contextually.
· Resist Biases – Biases can be conscious or unconscious, so they can be challenging to combat. A few biases to be aware of are the “like-me” bias or double standards. The “like-me” bias occurs when a hiring manager prefers a candidate who is similar to or resembles them. If the hiring manager is a man who thinks another man is a “good fit” for the company, he might actually just be harboring a “like-me” bias. Double standards take the form of appreciating certain qualities in male candidates, but perceiving those same qualities as negative attributes to a female candidate. An example would be men being assertive versus women being bossy. A great way to resist biases is to remove names from resumes so the hiring manager can objectively evaluate and focus on a candidate’s experiences and skills.
· Distribute Work Assignments Equitably – Evaluate the process of assigning work to ensure that projects are being distributed equitably and fairly, instead of based on personal relationships. Completing projects is crucial in developing experience but also in garnering positive exposure to senior leadership.
· Pay Equal Salaries for Equal Work! – As discussed above, gender-based differences in compensation is illegal. If there are gaps in how employees are paid, business owners should assess these areas. If the pay differences cannot be credibly explained then this could create a potential discrimination claim that should be repaired immediately.
This pandemic has had a devastating impact on many professional women. As business owners begin to consider re-opening, remember that many schools and childcare services remain closed. Working women will have to make tough decisions regarding their futures if their work is asking them to return to the office while their kids are still at home. Further, women who don’t have children will also struggle if they were laid off and are now returning to a workforce that presents a 7% pay penalty for their time away. Women are resilient and will find ways to persevere for themselves and those around them, but it’s essential that employers also take a moment to assess the state of gender equality in their businesses and how to reinstate the diversity this pandemic has erased for so many industries.
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