Another 275,000 women left the labor force in January in the United States. These are women who were working and now are no longer doing so and are no longer even looking for employment. Gone. The total number of women who have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic reached more than 2.3 million last month alone. This puts the women’s labor force participation rate at an abysmal 57%, which the National Women’s Law Center says had not been this low since 1988. We are moving backwards—literally. How truly disappointing is this for us when we think about all the progress we have made—globally, that is!

Last week, I set the stage for a blog series, focusing on systemic change and the digital divide, asking the very important question: How can we fix this? Today, I want to narrow in on the vulnerable state of women’s jobs—and what sorely needs to happen next to make dramatic change occur.

Compiled on top of this systemic issue, we also know the overall unemployment rate for Black women, Latinas, and other demographic groups is even higher in the United States. Stats reveal more than one in 12 Black women ages 20 and over (8.5%) were unemployed at the start of the new year. This is nearly 1.8 times their pre-pandemic unemployment rates. Meanwhile, nearly one in 11 Latinas ages 20 and over (9.1%) were unemployed and nearly one in 13 Asian women ages 20 and over (7.9%) were unemployed during the same timeframe. By comparison, the unemployment rate for white men ages 20 and over was 5.5% in January.

At the beginning of 2020, we were heading—what some might say—in a forward direction—especially the representation of women in corporate America. Women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23% comparing January 2015 to 28% in January 2020. Representation in the C-suite grew as well, from 17% to 21%, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study, which tracks the progress of women in corporate America. But it also casts a very sad fact that women in particular have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis—particularly women of color. McKinsey goes as far to say the COVID-19 crisis could set women back half a decade.

Certainly COVID-19 has sped up this problem—like it has sped up much else—with women leaving the workforce in droves due to a lack of adequate childcare, schooling, and the absence of overall support. That is a conversation that many are having. But I believe this touches on an underlying systemic concern that has long existed. A fracture that has always been there has now turned into a giant crater, as a result of the pandemic. But it’s up to all of us to open our eyes and address this quickly for future generations.

Let me explain with an example from the construction industry. In my experience, this is also true in other industries such as manufacturing, energy, even Hollywood, you name it, but is glaringly obvious in construction.

During the past 30 years women have consistently made up only 2% of trade and semi-skilled workers in Australian construction. Yikes. A report released by RMIT’s School of Property, Construction and Project Management, in February and commissioned by the Victorian Government as part of its Women in Construction Strategy shows this is because there is limited accountability for inappropriate behavior by males and a culture of silence that made women feel they couldn’t speak out or were punished for doing so.

The numbers found in the report are staggering and eye opening. Take a minute to consider what these might mean in your industry or when we consider the global ramifications. Key findings from women interviewed included:

  • 95% thought they were treated differently by men in the industry because of their gender.
  • 78% commented about poor work-life balance, and how long working hours and shift work affected their health, social life, and relationships.
  • 72% said resilience was essential for working in trades and semi-skilled roles, saying they had a strong ability to deal with adversity, learn from it, and adapt.
  • 60% felt that when they faced inappropriate and challenging behavior in their workplace, they were not always supported.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Sarah Holdsworth from RMIT even goes as far as to say there was ongoing resistance to creating a workplace culture that welcomed and supported female workers. She suggests what is needed is a zero-tolerance policy regarding inappropriate behavior toward women was required at all levels from employers, employees, and unions, to vocational providers, government and construction peak bodies.

I do believe the first step is having hard conversations about what is really happening behind the scenes. We need policies and procedures. We might consider adjusting our policies around work flexibility. We need to set aside our gender bias and we need to foster a culture that supports women—particularly women of color. And we need buy-in from the top down. But it needs to happen now.

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