My dust covered carry-on sits on my closet floor; sometimes I believe it laughs at me. Before COVID-19, it was my ride or die, as I was constantly jetting across several continents for work. And yet, when all travel ceased last March, it wasn’t long before I found myself with less time than before.
How was it possible that with no travel, no taxis from the office to the airport, no waiting at gates and on planes, and no recovering from jet lag, I am still racing through my day and late for everything? Like so many women, I immediately found myself swamped and overscheduled — though I rarely leave my house. Maybe you can relate to feeling that you’re doing nothing and everything all at once?
As a working mom, I want to do everything, be prepared for any situation and, at my fingertips, have a solution for every problem. But that’s not always possible. The past 12 months have forced us all to make hard decisions about what we carry and what we leave behind, and this has been particularly hard on women.
For International Women’s Day last year, I wrote about how women’s business is good business. I argued that women should do as men do, and form an “Old Girls’ Club” to lift each other into positions of power.
I posted that article on March 9, just as COVID-19 was beginning to shut down workplaces in the U.S., but before the true extent of COVID-19 was understood. One exhausting year later, and the Old Girls’ Club is more relevant than ever. They have a new priority: mitigating the economic disaster happening to American women.
Working moms and the “shecession”
When the December jobs report came out, I had to read the news article twice to make sure I understood it. Women accounted for all of the 140,000 jobs lost in the U.S. that month. C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), calls it a “shecession.” More than 11 million women have lost their jobs since February 2020, and another 2.65 million have left the workforce.
Why? Women are more likely to work in vulnerable industries, such as hospitality and leisure. Child care responsibilities are another factor, and the gender difference here is extreme: About 1 in 5 mothers are contemplating leaving the workforce, opposed to only 1 in 10 fathers. The drain is especially bad on women of color, who are less likely to work in remote-friendly positions.
Like my often-overstuffed travel bag, working moms carry too much. When they’re juggling their jobs, child care, the special challenges of virtual school and housework — yes, women still do more housework than men, even when they’re working — it’s no wonder working moms are looking for something to take out of their bag, and no wonder it’s often their careers.
It’s another setback for women’s already precarious places in the workforce. It means an even more difficult path for women who want to enter leadership positions, as well as an American workforce that’s less diverse now than it was before COVID-19.
Let’s be clear: Just because women are facing the brunt of work-family balance problems doesn’t mean it’s our sole responsibility to solve them. Men need to step it up — whether that means fathers taking on more responsibility at home, or CEOs (who are usually male) working to ensure that everyone in their organization can have a productive career and a rich personal life. One day in the future, I hope we’ll no longer see this problem as a “woman’s issue.” But until that day, we need an Old Girl’s Club — in fact, I think it can help us get there.
How the Old Girls’ Club can help
Last year I wrote about the Old Girls’ Club: a network of women working to mentor and support younger women, exchange ideas and assistance, and normalize the idea of women in the C-suite and senior leadership roles. The Old Girls’ Club has an opportunity to reduce bias in the hiring and promotion processes, and to usher in a larger cultural change of celebrating sisterhood. Think of it as the tonic to that patriarchy-enforced habit too many of us have — seeing other women as our competitors rather than our colleagues.
Here are three ways a strong Old Girls’ Club could help stem the “shecession”:
1. Enable family care
We must have a stronger social infrastructure if we’re going to keep working moms (particularly working moms of color) in the workforce. If we do not have childcare, we’re dead in the water. Senior care is equally important. Women are often stretched between caring for two generations of family — their children and their parents. Even when women aren’t primary caretakers, they’re still spending their time caring for seniors. For example, almost every woman I talk to with older parents or relatives has been spending hours a week online trying to get them vaccine appointments.
So far, the government has failed to come through with child care solutions, meaningful monetary support and assistance for families. Women in leadership positions can be part of this change: Can your brand help build that social infrastructure? Can you provide employees with free or subsidized child care? Can you activate HR to share resources?
2. Make sure changes are inclusive
Only 41 Fortune 500 companies have women chief executives — and that’s an all-time high. In the history of the Fortune 500 list, there have only ever been 19 Black CEOs. When Roz Brewer takes over as CEO of Walgreen’s Boots Alliance later this month, she’ll be the only Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company — and only the third in the list’s history.
Leadership must reflect the communities it serves. If there’s a decision being made that affects women, then women need to be involved in the decision-making process. And a benefit isn’t a benefit if it only helps white women — whatever solutions we build must be flexible enough for all women.
3. Now more than ever, offer mentorship
Everyone is struggling right now. Even routine work meetings can turn into high-stress situations simply because we’re all burned out and our nerves are fried. Working women, in particular, are having boundary issues — are you working from home, or are you sleeping in the office? Are you taking a few days off, or are you answering work emails on your phone instead of your laptop? In times like this, mentorship has never been more important.
Isolation and overworking are not good breeding grounds for success. Those of us who are positioned to lift women up must find the time to do so. We owe it to them, and we owe it to the women of tomorrow who will doubtlessly face the same problems, as well as a whole host of new ones we haven’t yet imagined.
We’re all struggling, but our struggles are not identical. The mother home-schooling three young children is having a very different experience from the single woman who hasn’t hugged another human in nearly a year. We each need to decide for ourselves what we can offer and how we can support one another. For some of us, the honest answer might be: not a lot. However, those of us who have the bandwidth, especially senior-level women, need to find the time. Call your mentees while you’re in the car or making dinner. Help them navigate this new world. Make sure mentorship isn’t one of the things you take out of your bag, because if we don’t pass down our hard-won knowledge and experience, it dies with us.
Blessed, yet struggling
I fully recognize I’m one of the lucky ones. Through COVID-19, I’ve kept my job. I can do my work from my home office. Most important, I don’t have young kids. My youngest is 17 — that brings its own set of COVID-19-related problems, but solving childcare isn’t one of them. Just about everything has gone right for me, and I’m still struggling. We all are. Although financial worries aren’t keeping me up at night, a lot of other things that I can’t control are. That’s why it’s so important to raise our voices, to tell the truth and make changes that will lift all of us up.
And if we truly want to set women up for success, these changes cannot be temporary. We cannot drop them when we return to working in person. They must be forever changes, not temporary stopgaps. My next 18-hour flight is still a long way off, but I want the wings of these learnings to take air now, when we need it most. Our sisters are hurting, and for them we must be the cavalry. We owe it to the Old Girls’ Clubs of tomorrow.