The far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt in every sector of society and have changed the world in profound ways. While there has been a disparate, and perhaps temporary impact on specific industries, there are arguably tragic and potentially long-term implications for future opportunities and aspirations for women and girls.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has been hard for everyone, but the unique impact on women has been well documented. For the last 24 months women have shouldered a disproportionate amount of responsibility in key places that keep a functioning society operating effectively: service and helping professions, such as K-12 education, and child/home/family care and management. These often underappreciated sectors, which are traditionally occupied by women, have experienced tremendous levels of upheaval due to the multiple demands placed on women in recent months.
Women are responsible for managing professional, personal and family challenges amidst a global pandemic, and alongside one of the most politically polarizing times in recent history. This has served to upend stability, contribute to burnout, illuminate inequities and create an unsteady outlook for the next generation of aspiring female leaders.
Gender parity, equal representation and equitable compensation has continued to be a distant aspiration in most occupations and COVID has only further tipped the scales. If we don’t act quickly and invest specifically, the meager gains that have been made over the last decade will likely be erased. We must seize this opportunity to build a safer, stabler, more equitable future for the next generation of girls – our future leaders.
Here are four things we can do now:
Ensure that girls have exposure to women in a wide variety of jobs, careers and leadership roles so that they can understand what is possible for them.
A narrow set of options leads to a narrow perspective of opportunity. While women comprise about 52% of the workforce, they only make up about 5% of high-wage earners. Women are more likely to find themselves in entry-level or middle-management positions as compared to C-suite or executive level roles. In fact, the higher the status and the salary of the position, the less likely it is to be occupied by a female. This is true in nearly every sector, industry, political and educational setting in our country. When girls look around, who do they see? Where do they see people of their same gender and race? Representation matters. Ensuring girls and young women see what is possible provides incentive as well as a path forward.
Continually reinforce and reward girls’ ambition and desire to lead.
Girls are more likely than boys to report that they aren’t sure if they want to be leaders, with a full ⅓ reporting that they stay away from leadership positions because they don’t want others to think that they are bossy. Girls often need to be specifically encouraged to take risks and to stretch themselves into spaces where they may feel inadequate or are underrepresented. This need to hand-select and specifically encourage girls to try out a leadership role begins in elementary school. Beginning at these early ages, girls stop raising their hands and start losing confidence in their abilities – and this phenomenon doesn’t end when girls become women. Find opportunities to encourage the girls and young women in your life to take the chance, submit the application, raise their hand or claim their seat – and be there to support them every step of the journey.
Help girls see that career ambition, job-related pride and sense of accomplishment via work are not male characteristics.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing ‘The Great Resignation’ has forced individuals and employers to re-evaluate the way that they work, the value and intrinsic motivation that they derive from work and the ways that they prioritize work, family and leisure. Historically, careers have been viewed as more important to the identity formation of males and family/domestic pursuits connected to the identity construction of females. This has contributed to a pervasive belief that occupational aspirations are less important to girls and women. Unfortunately, some current COVID trends might reinforce this belief.
- Young women (Gen Z and millennials) are re-prioritizing their lives, leaving the workforce or downshifting their early-stage careers.
- Women, specifically mothers, are leaving the workforce at twice the rate of men.
What is perhaps most interesting about these trends is that one of the scenarios above is by choice (early career prioritization of needs), the other is not (inability to stay due to economic/childcare needs). Many mothers have found themselves in the untenable situation of trying to negotiate the responsibilities of their employment alongside the very real needs of their families. Women have been forced to pause their jobs – and oftentimes their entire career trajectory – to meet the in-the-moment needs of their families.
These women are sad, angry and frustrated as they step away from something that they love (their career) for something that they love even more (their family). The identity that they have via their occupation is an intense point of pride and the loss that they are experiencing is real and tangible – as is their earning potential. They feel that what they have been working and fighting for is slipping through their fingers.
The second scenario, a more recently noted phenomenon where young women are eagerly leaving their paid employment in search of a different quality of life. Labeled the “Age of Anti-Ambition” or “The YOLO Economy” there are some serious implications for how girls come to understand ambition, career aspirations and what they believe that they want out of life. These discussions and decisions require a keen ability to identify and reconcile personal priorities, access to resources and career ambitions.
Regardless of the reasoning for separation from employment, the long-term reality is that few women who take extended time off will regain the careers that they had. While women weren’t starting from a level playing field before COVID, their departure from the workforce means that their representation in vital, powerful and much needed occupations will continue to suffer. Ultimately, women will lose ground on equity.
As individuals who advise and mentor girls and early-stage professionals, it is important to consider the ways that shorter term decisions can impact and influence longitudinal career attainment. We can help girls understand that their life happiness can be co-constructed with their occupational satisfaction. Helping them learn that career decision-making should be a process of self-discovery where: “What I am good at + What I care about + What I like to do = My career” can set girls up for personal/social/career alignment and a future where their individual needs, desires and ambitions don’t compete with or negatively impact their occupational aspirations.
Advocate for more equitable distributions of home and childcare responsibilities.
If the pandemic revealed one thing, it is that women continue to carry the majority of the childcare responsibilities within American families. As women have grown their careers and their outside-of-the home paid employment, they have simultaneously continued to find themselves as the person who is primarily responsible for the domestic and family duties. They are making the doctor’s appointments, coordinating the play dates, preparing the meals and doing the homework – and they are exhausted and the current workplace policies aren’t helping.
While there are certainly exceptions to the statements above, this is most definitely the prevailing discourse among women’s leadership cohorts, coaching seminars, self-care initiatives and hundreds of research articles published over the last 24 months.
At what point do we say, “Enough already!”?
It is time to collectively acknowledge that this is not the future that we want for our girls. This is not the reality that we want for our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, friends and mentees. We want them to have every chance and every opportunity to create a future for themselves that they love – a future that is in no way limited by norms, expectations or traditions. A future where their hard work and accomplishments are valued and their voice and opinion are equally regarded.
This Women’s History Month, let’s commit to making these important individual investments in the girls and young women who we influence. Let’s contribute to discussions, analyze the policies and question the systems. Because ultimately, we are responsible for creating the future that we want. Let’s ensure that girls – our future leaders – need to have the belief in themselves, the ability to take on the challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate their competencies.
Written by Dr. Lisa Hinkelman.
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