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How Has COVID-19 Impacted Women in the Workplace?

Posted by Frances Huntley on Tuesday, October 13, 2020

COVID-19 Threatens Opportunities for Women in the Workplace

For months, the GREATER MSP intel team has been tracking economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Greater MSP region, with a particular focus on the disparities among various populations, to better inform the development of inclusive recovery strategies. This week, the intel team is focused on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on working women, and what this means for our regional economy.

Unlike the Great Recession when job losses predominately impacted male dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, women are experiencing significantly higher job losses than men during the current recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, this was partly caused by the fact that women’s jobs were more heavily concentrated in industry sectors like food service and retail that were hit hardest by the state mandates and stay at home orders. There is now a concern that, though many of these jobs are back on the rise, the increased family and childcare needs due to school and daycare closures are causing women to leave their jobs or make career sacrifices at much higher rates than men. Both Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal have reported recently that the U.S. is looking at a very real threat to the progress made toward gender equity in the workplace, in terms of pay, professional career progression, and representation in leadership.

Speed of economic recovery threatened by barriers to employment for women

Threats to women working has serious implications for the MSP region. In MSP, we have by far the highest percent of women working as a percent of all adult women among our peer set of metros and all metros overall. In the latest year of data (2018), 78.2% of women in the MSP region are employed, a full 4% higher than in Denver, the next highest-ranking peer region for women working. Alongside an overall high labor participation rate and low unemployment rate (pre-COVID-19), it is evident that our region depends upon women working. While women  leaving the workforce during this economic downturn may not immediately impact the availability of labor demanded by employers, there is concern that women may become discouraged and leave the labor force long term, which will impact our region’s ability to recover quickly from the crisis.

Source: American Community Survey 1-Year estimates, 2018

GREATER MSP surveys working women, in partnership with Twin Cities Business

In late September, GREATER MSP, in partnership with Twin Cities Business, conducted a survey of over 320 working women in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region, to learn more about how these issues are impacting women and how the pandemic has influenced their career goals and decisions. On Monday, these results were unpacked during a virtual TCB Talks event on the topic of Women In Leadership.

We learned that women in MSP are indeed having to make difficult decisions and tradeoffs between their careers and their family obligations, and the pandemic is beginning to affect the retention of women in the MSP workforce.

Remote work, at least part time, is preference of working women

First, nine in ten women surveyed are currently working remotely or partly remotely because of the pandemic. The flexibility to work from home has been an advantage to maintaining employment levels in the region, especially for office-oriented occupations and industries. And the survey finds that most working women would like to continue to work remotely if given the opportunity, at least part-time. Over half of respondents prefer to work remotely part-time and an additional 40% would prefer to work entirely remote.  This is a signal that the workplace flexibility that was accelerated by COVID-19 is likely here to stay.

To retain a skilled workforce and compete for new talent, employers will have to respond to this preference for workplace flexibility. The question remains how flexible employers will get with remote work options. When asked how working remotely has affected preferences and decisions around geographic residence, nearly 30% of women reported that they are either considering moving out of the Minneapolis Saint Paul region or considering jobs at organizations outside of MSP due to the ability to work remotely. Having no baseline, it is complicated to know the significance of this finding, other than working women are weighing their options with newfound remote work flexibility. It also remains to be seen how this finding will play out as employers are building post-COVID remote work policies.

Majority of working women with children are working full-time with children in the home

While flexibility for remote work is desired, the survey finds that working women are bearing a new burden that comes along with work-from-home, part-time or full-time childcare while carrying a full workload. More than two-thirds of women surveyed who have children are currently working with their children at home during the workweek, part-time or full-time, and 43% are providing daytime childcare while working. Among the many ways this is likely impacting working women’s lives and wellbeing, we saw in the survey findings a direct impact to the ability for working women to grow their professional network, and a sense of worry that their increased family obligations may impede their career progression and ability to secure a promotion.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace is a leading priority for working women

The survey also asked women what is most important to them right now in their organizations. Among several categories to choose from, 70% of women ranked diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) the top priority for their organization, and 67% prioritized work-life balance. These two priority areas ranked far above any other in terms of importance for women in MSP. The importance of DE&I work for women in MSP was further demonstrated in that 71% of women leaders, those in executive-level positions, reported having recently taken action within their organizations to improve DE&I in their workplaces, with the highest share of women reporting that they acted by facilitating important dialogues around race/racial equity in their organization.

The findings from the Women in the Workplace 2020 survey is largely reinforcing national findings in recent months in the threat to retaining women in the labor force. This issue is top of mind for the GREATER MSP Partnership as we consider recovery strategies that will transform the MSP region into an economy that works for everyone.