Some experts and news outlets are calling it a “shecession” as women in the U.S. experience disproportionate effects of the economic downturn during the coronavirus pandemic.
From mid-March through April, when schools closed and child care providers struggled to stay open, women in Utah filed the majority of new unemployment claims, according to data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
In September, 865,000 women left the workforce, compared to 216,000 men nationally, reported The 19th* — a nonprofit news organization focused on gender, politics and policy — based on the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed leaders at four Utah businesses about how companies can support women, as well as men, and keep them working and on track for leadership positions during COVID-19.
Jonyce Bullock, CEO of Squire, an accounting firm in Orem and Salt Lake City, said she wonders, “What is it going to do to us long term?”
“We’ve spent years trying to build that pipeline of female, diverse managers," Bullock said. "If they leave the workforce, how long is it going to take us to rebuild that?”
Christine VanCampen isn’t surprised by the “shecession,” but she said it’s “disheartening.”
“All the reasons that are sort of underlying why we’re seeing this ‘shecession’ … have been pretty prevalent for a while," with women still carrying a “disproportionate amount” of household responsibilities and child care, said VanCampen, vice president of culture and engagement at CHG Healthcare, which has its headquarters in Midvale.
COVID-19 “is really exacerbating some of the factors that already make it harder for women to excel in our profession,” said Ashley Peck, a partner at the law firm Holland & Hart, which has an office in Salt Lake City.
“It potentially threatens to roll back years of progress in the workplace," she said, “and in the legal profession generally for women.”
Bullock said it’s good that we’re talking now about how women are being affected, rather than trying to address the issue years down the road. She hopes some of the changes being made to help employees will continue after the pandemic is over.
“If we don’t capture what we’ve learned from this," Bullock said, “we’re just going to go back to status quo, and what a waste of a crisis.”
Businesses need to offer employees flexibility during the pandemic, according to the local leaders The Tribune interviewed.
Previously, Bullock could work from wherever she wanted, but she always worried, “Will the dog bark in the background? Will I look professional in a meeting?”
Now, as many people work remotely, “there’s this new level of acceptance,” Bullock said. Recently, “I was on a call with some of the people at work, and I had to answer the door twice. I had to pick up the dog because it was whining.
“Those are the kinds of things that seven months ago, I would have been really embarrassed by," Bullock added, “and now they’re just matter of course.”
Women at the company who had already been working remotely “are saying that they’ve never been happier, they’ve never felt more connected, ever," she said, “because finally they’re not the odd ones out.”
Flexibility also means people might not work the traditional “8 to 5,” said Tara Martell, vice president of customer experience at BambooHR, a Lindon-based human resources software company.
“I start a little earlier. I end a little later. But then I have little pockets of the day that allow me flexibility to go and deal with those other things that are happening right now,” Martell said, such as helping children with schoolwork or getting things done at home.
Holland ＆ Hart’s flex time policy “allows our attorneys, both men and women, to reduce … their time commitment ... to be able to work part time or to deal with other things in their lives,” Peck said. “It doesn’t put people who take advantage of that policy necessarily on a different track. They can remain on partnership track while they take a step back because of whatever is going on in their lives.”
Managers should lead with empathy right now, Peck said, and it’s important for them to “step outside their own personal experience and try to see things from someone else’s perspective of having to juggle all of these issues."
A male employee at Squire asked to cut his hours back because he felt “really burned out” caring for his five children while his wife worked as an intensive care unit nurse, Bullock said. His situation was “eye-opening” for some of Bullock’s male partners.
“Having a male employee who was actually kind of more on the female side of this experience," she said, “has really brought a level of understanding and empathy to our partners when they’re working with our female staff.”
Benefits and assistance
Bullock said she’s also focused on making sure people take their paid time off.
“Our industry is a little bit unique,” she said, since this year her employees didn’t get their usual break after April because the tax deadlines were extended to July. They also helped clients navigate the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“For a period there, it felt like you were working 20 hours a day," Bullock said. “You stepped away from your desk long enough to feed your kids, make sure they turned in their homework, and then you were back at your desk.”
As a result, Bullock realized employees weren’t taking PTO like they did in previous years, so she’s encouraged managers to help their staff find times to do that so they don’t get burned out.
CHG Healthcare leaders helped their staffers access mental health counseling and financial resources, VanCampen said. This year, the company expanded their “employee compassion fund” to provide grants and “quick relief” for people struggling to afford groceries, diapers and other items during COVID-19.
Those who have lost their job or seen their industry affected by COVID-19 should think about how their skills could transfer to a new career, Martell said. For instance, event planners are out of work as large-scale gatherings are postponed indefinitely, but they have experience working on deadline and paying attention to details.
“If you want to continue your career," she said, “it might be a time to use those adjacent skills and find what else they’re really well-marketed and well-suited for.”
Women leaving the workforce should also keep networking, Martell said, and make sure they don’t drop their skills.
“That’s critical. ... How do you stay involved so that when you go to get back in, you can say, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing with my break,'" she said. “...That shows employers that they’re going to be able to pick up right where they left off.”
Peck said it’s also “important to continue to make sure that women are being offered the same opportunities, and that they’re making the decisions themselves,” rather than managers assuming what their employees can handle.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.