The careers of women across the globe have been curtailed due to the unprecedented demands of coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. Given the many potential leaks already present in the diverse engineering and leadership pipelines, how do we understand COVID’s immediate and long-term effects?
Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
We’ve heard the terrifying news: Women are dropping out of the workforce by the millions, sacrificing their careers, earnings potential, and retirement savings to take up their caregivers’ mantles. Is this true of women in engineering and STEM overall? And how will STEM leaders, specifically in engineering, fulfill their pronouncements to attract, train, hire, and promote a more diverse workforce and academic environment in the wake of the unprecedented work-from-home shift?
The impact could be more severe than even the doomsday headlines suggest “if factors such as increased child care burdens, attitudinal bias, a slower recovery, or reduced public and private spending on services such as education or child care make women leave the labor market permanently,” warned one of many reports that detailed how women take on most of the cooking, cleaning, in-home teaching, child care, elder care, and other mundane duties such as pet-walking, home maintenance, overseeing everyone’s schedules, and enforcing COVID-19 precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing (Madgavkar et al. 2020).
$1 trillion in implications globally
Research confirms the gloomy news for women of all professions worldwide. The McKinsey Global Institute (Madgavkar et al. 2020) calculated that women’s jobs around the world were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic crisis caused by SARS-CoV-2 than men’s jobs.
Women made up 39% of global employment but accounted for 54% of overall job losses from the start of the pandemic through July 2020, according to the Global Institute’s research. The report estimated that, if no action is taken to counter women’s unique burden during the coronavirus epidemic, global GDP growth — the gross domestic product that’s an important indicator of a country’s economic performance — could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would have been if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each industry sector.
And that’s not even taking into account that, prior to the coronavirus epidemic, the McKinsey Global Institute’s 15 gender-equality indicators showed that tangible progress toward gender parity had been uneven throughout the world.
The McKinsey Global Institute’s research mapped 15 gender-equality indicators worldwide across four categories.
The latter three categories together indicate equality in society, according to the institute’s definition.
and enablers of
One reason for the greater effect on women is that the pandemic increased the burden of unpaid domestic (household) care, which overwhelmingly affects women. This, among other factors, meant that women’s employment dropped faster than average, even after accounting for the fact that women and men work in industries affected differently by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as health care, manufacturing, and social services.
Women do an average of 75% of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including shopping; cooking; cleaning; gathering firewood; obtaining clean water; and caring for children, in-laws, and elderly family members, according to the Global Institute report.
In some regions, such as South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women’s share of unpaid-care work is as high as 80 to 90%. South Asia is defined as Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. One example: Women do nine times as much unpaid care work as men in India.
Another major factor, particularly in the United States, is lack of day care, as well as the financial impact of unsubsidized day care. Half of the U.S. child care providers had shuttered by August 2020 because of the pandemic, and another 15% were open only to children of essential workers, according to a coalition of early childhood educators. The financial burden of child care falls primarily on American families.
Studies show that women in engineering have taken on more traditional duties at home, but most haven’t dropped out of the workforce — yet.
A survey of SWE members in India showed, of 335 respondents, 4% of those employed said they were considering leaving the workforce because of COVID-19 issues, but 80% of those considering leaving were women. Almost 60% of women compared with 40% of men reported feeling pressure to agree to work-related meetings outside of normal work hours during the pandemic.
Yet complications have arisen to cloud the goals of corporate and higher-education leaders who want to increase engineering’s diversity.
A U.K. survey, for example, showed that the pandemic may influence the next generation of women to steer away from engineering as a profession, further starving the pipeline for female, diverse leadership, because the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened their awareness of health care occupations. The London-based nonprofit EngineeringUK, which works with businesses to increase the number and diversity of young people in engineering, said its survey, “Young People and Covid-19” (2020), showed more young women chose health care as their preferred vocation because of its importance in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey of young people ages 11 to 19, conducted in summer 2020, showed a higher proportion of girls and young women than boys and young men said the pandemic had made them more likely to work in health care (29% for the girls versus 18% of the boys). In contrast, a higher proportion of boys and young men than girls and young women said the pandemic had made them more likely to work in engineering (17% men versus 12% women) or technology (23% versus 18%).
Public policies affecting day care, family leave, unemployment benefits extensions, and the pandemic restrictions themselves also played a role in forcing women to choose between their work and their families. Those hardest hit by the pandemic in Canada and the United States, for example, were women, migrants, young people and informal workers, or those in lower-wage jobs, according to a report (Betcherman et al. 2020) by IZA, the nonprofit Institute of Labor Economics.
Some employers in the United States reacted to COVID-19 with harshness, refusing to pay employees who had to take time off of work to quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus. Others violated the CARES Act, which required private companies with fewer than 500 employees to provide additional paid family leave under certain circumstances due to the pandemic.
“I call them sacrificial workers, as opposed to essential workers,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C.
“There has to be a public outcry” before meaningful policy changes happen, she said.
That won’t surprise most women. After all, the pandemic’s effects were much the same worldwide: Children had to stay home and be supervised as they took lessons via Zoom and other online platforms. Families stopped taking young children to day care centers and/or decided to isolate rather than allow nannies and child care providers inside their homes. And child care providers stopped offering to stay in people’s homes — all due to fears of getting or spreading the coronavirus.
Many causes for concern prior to COVID
Even before pandemic lockdowns started in mid- to late March 2020, women in the United States were doing more than double the amount of unpaid care work — duties such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of parents and in-laws, said Kweilin Ellingrud, senior partner with McKinsey & Company, which sponsored the report “Women in the Workplace 2020” (Thomas et al. 2020).
The report, which focuses exclusively on the United States workforce, has been published in The Wall Street Journal every October for the past six years in partnership with LeanIn.org to help companies advance workplace diversity. Its conclusions covered roughly the first half of the pandemic lockdown, or through July 2020, Ellingrud said.
LeanIn.org is a nonprofit group founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, author of the book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, published in 2013. The nonprofit is dedicated to “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.”
Women remained significantly outnumbered at the managerial level at the beginning of 2020: They held just 38% of managerial positions, while men held 62%.
The report details a mixed picture for women in corporate leadership prior to the COVID-19 pandemic: Between 2015 and 2020, the share of women in senior vice president’s roles grew to 28% (comprising 23% white women and 5% women of color) from 23%, and increased to approximately 21% (19% white women and 3% women of color) from 17% in the C-suite, comprising people who report directly to the CEO or a role equivalent to chief financial officer, chief information or technology officer, chief operating officer, and the like.
But the study showed that a “broken rung” in promotions at the first step up to manager posed a major barrier to diverse leadership.
For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted — and this gap was even larger for women of color. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered at the managerial level at the beginning of 2020: They held just 38% of managerial positions, while men held 62%. In the category “Engineering and Industrial Manufacturing,” women accounted for 33% of entry-level jobs; 22% of managers; 20% of senior managers; 22% of senior vice presidents; and 16% of people who report directly to the CEO, including CFOs, CTOs, etc., the report showed.
Yet women were more likely to have staff roles, such as chief legal counsel or head of human resources, in the C-suite and elsewhere, without business-line responsibilities such as running a business and its profit-and-loss operations, Ellingrud said.
Leaders in staff roles were less likely to be promoted to CEO based on historical precedent, given that “CEOs who have been promoted from within are almost always promoted from P&L or business unit roles — rarely staff roles, so if we want to shift the 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs who are women, we will need to increase the number of women who have business-line leadership roles,” Ellingrud said.
The pandemic threatens to reduce the numbers of women in those critical leadership roles and in the pipeline to leadership.
Misty Heggeness, Ph.D.
U.S. Census Bureau
McKinsey & Company
The heavy price of caregiving
As the pandemic and its restrictions took effect, mothers in traditional mother-father relationships were more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving, according to the “Women in the Workplace 2020” report, which surveyed more than 40,000 employees at 317 companies across the United States and Canada.
In fact, these mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an extra three or more hours a day on child care and housework — equivalent to 15 or more hours a week, or half of a full-time job, the report said.
More than 70% of fathers interviewed said they thought they were splitting household labor equally with their partners during Covid-19 — but only 44% of mothers said the same.
For the one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner, the challenges were even greater. They had less freedom than did their two-income-family counterparts to step away from their jobs. Yet women who did have the option of taking a leave of absence or who quit their jobs surrendered building their 401(k) and pension holdings and potentially short-circuiting their careers and future earnings.
A 35-year-old woman who earns $80,000 a year and who leaves the workforce for five years can expect to lose $197,000 in retirement assets and benefits, if she retires at age 67, according to a calculator set up by the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization.
“You put yourself on a lower earnings trajectory for the rest of your life from that point forward,” said Misty Heggeness, Ph.D., a principal economist with the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. Dr. Heggeness wrote a study that revealed working mothers in states with early COVID stay-at-home orders and school closings were 68.8% more likely to take a leave from their jobs than working mothers in states where those closures happened later (Heggeness 2020).
Of people not working during the pandemic, women ages 25 to 44 were almost three times as likely as men to be at home due to child care demands, said another study, co-written by Dr. Heggeness and Jason M. Fields, Ph.D., a senior researcher for demographic programs with the U.S. Census Bureau. About one in three (32.1%) of these women said they were not working because of child care, compared with 12.1% of men in the same age group (Heggeness and Fields 2020).
Given women’s limited options, Dr. Heggeness said, “We have quite a ways to go. I don’t think we’ll see gender equality in the workforce until we figure out how to do it in our informal, domestic lives.”
Single mothers were more likely than other parents to do all the housework and child care in their households, and they were more likely than mothers overall to say that financial insecurity was one of their top concerns during the pandemic.
Another hard-hit group comprised Black women and Latinas, according to the “Women in the Workplace 2020” report. “Latina and Black mothers are shouldering heavier burdens than white mothers,” the report indicated. They are more likely to be their family’s sole breadwinner or to have partners working outside the home during COVID-19. They are doing more at home, too: Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all child care and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely to be handling all of this for their families.
Of women interviewed, those who said they felt stressed included 55% of white women, 49% of Latinas, and 47% of Asian and Black women. The highest response for feeling exhausted came from Black women, at 40%, followed by 37% of Asian and white women each, and 34% of Latinas.
Black women reported another emotional toll: Those interviewed said they were 2.5 times more likely to report a loved one’s death due to COVID-19 and were 1.5 times more likely to feel uncomfortable sharing their grief at work.
Finally, employees who cared for sick or elderly relatives worried that their work performance would be judged negatively because of their responsibilities.
The uneven playing field dealt a particularly big blow to women in senior leadership positions, the report showed. Senior-level women were also nearly twice as likely as women were overall to be “onlys” — the only or one of the only women in the room at work.
That came with its own challenges: Women who are “onlys” were more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience microaggressions, including needing to provide additional evidence of their competence. Not surprisingly, senior-level women were significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel under pressure to work more and as though they had to be “always on.”
And they were 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three in four cited burnout as a main reason. That points to cause for concern to secure the improvements women have made in diversity — and not to backslide, Dr. Ellingrud said.
At a country level, the data suggest that in the United States, women made up 46% of workers before COVID-19 and that they would make up 43% of job losses. But unemployment data showed that women actually made up 54% of the overall job losses through July 2020.
Similarly, in India, women made up 20% of the workforce before COVID-19, but unemployment surveys suggest that they actually accounted for 23% of overall job losses through July 2020.
The analysis concluded that the gendered nature of work across industries — with women generally clustered into clerical, front-line and caregiving work — explained one-fourth of the difference between job-loss rates for men and women. The lack of progress to resolve other societal barriers for women explained the rest.
Rigid hurdles for women in academia and medicine
Women’s ability to advance and stay in leadership roles in academia — and particularly in STEM and medical, or STEMM fields, is a big worry, too.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine commissioned five papers in fall 2020 aimed at highlighting how the pandemic amplified existing hardships that women face in gaining representation in higher education.
Perhaps no anecdote more succinctly sums this up than a woman working in academia in a STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) field who responded anonymously to a COVID-19 impact study led by Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D., the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. The study was commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The academic was teaching via Zoom in a closet in her home. She reported that she was concerned that her 5-year-old child, by experimenting with a bobby pin, was getting closer to figuring out how to get into the closet.
Indeed, roughly three-quarters of the women in STEMM fields in academia who had children said they experienced significant problems with productivity, partly because of the need to focus on their children’s behavior.
“It made the inequality more visible,” said Dr. Kossek, lead author of “Boundaryless Work: The Impact of COVID-19 on Work-Life Boundary Management, Integration, and Domestic Labor for Academic Women in STEMM” (Kossek 2020). Time-management studies have shown that even for couples in academia, male faculty are four times more likely to have a partner who provides full-time domestic care than are female faculty, Dr. Kossek noted.
Dr. Kossek, the first elected president of the international Work Family Researchers Network, has studied work-and-family policy for nearly three decades. She said a critical problem is a lack of integrated solutions within what’s traditionally been a “masculine, over-work [oriented] culture.” Leaders in higher education have historically viewed child and elder care as benefits, but they’ve not linked those benefits to a talent management strategy, particularly one that aims to increase and retain a diverse workforce for the long term, Dr. Kossek said.
While universities moved work into the homes and focused mainly on COVID-19 testing — which, granted, is important — Dr. Kossek said the researchers found that faculty in the Boundaryless Work study wanted paid family leave, among other things. These included vouchers or other monetary help with child and elder care; fewer hours spent in meetings; steps to reduce “low-value” work; and greater flexibility so that important meetings and classes are not held to rigid hours, combined with more-predictable work demands.
Another controversy centers on how tenure is awarded, particularly when women in academia start their families just as the pressures and workload of the tenure track are greatest. That, too, has been made more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic because it has delayed funding, laboratory access, travel for research, and other criteria important for tenure. And research has shown that a “one-size-fits-all” tenure clock can lead to greater gender inequalities (Manchester 2020).
A separate study that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Jefferson et al. 2021) commissioned during fall 2020 showed that Black women, and particularly Black women who were mothers and in non-tenure track positions, had particularly onerous service burdens — and it was underscored at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and at rural and nonresearch teaching colleges and universities.
One key reason was that Black teachers and their students were hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths in their families and other anguish, including the overlapping Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide and a higher incidence of lacking quality internet access and other inequities, said Felicia Jefferson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the biology department at Fort Valley State University in Georgia and director of the university’s Neuroscience, Bioengineering and Sleep (NeuBEs) Laboratory.
In fact, STEMM enrollment at HBCUs from the start of the pandemic through the fall increased by 5.8 percent, on average, from the year-earlier period, because the students needed the stable internet access and classroom environment.
Dr. Jefferson said the data need to continue to be tracked, and that women in STEMM need trusted faculty mentors and re-integration training to ensure they stay on track toward advancing their careers.
Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D.
Basil S. Turner Professor of Management
Purdue University Krannert School of Management
Purdue University Krannert School of Management
Felicia Jefferson, Ph.D.
associate professor, department of biology
Fort Valley State University
Fort Valley State University Office of Marketing and Communications
Rochelle L. Williams, Ph.D.
senior director of programs
National Society of Black Engineers
Iris Mannings, Iris Mannings Photography
Another key is for faculty to have training in awareness and prevention of committing microaggressions against the women who have been under the greatest pressure throughout the pandemic. Black and Latinx women in STEMM — especially those with no partner and who have primary responsibility for children — have endured the most stress and loss of productivity, the research showed.
The United States lags other countries in figuring this out.
“A minister of gender equality exists in South Korea,” Dr. Kossek said. “In Australia and England, employees of all backgrounds — whether or not they have child or elder care responsibilities — have the right to request a flexible schedule. The employer has to show how it would hurt business in order to decline.”
A separate National Academies study showed that Black female professors faced unique pressures to counsel and spend time with students who sought them out because of the students’ traumatic pandemic struggles, economically and personally. The students ranged from first-generation to those in rural areas and at HBCUs.
“Black women and faculty of color in academic STEMM continue to undergo a service burden to provide personal consultations and academic concessions to students and perform institutional diversity and inclusion work,” said Rochelle L. Williams, Ph.D., senior director of programs for the National Society of Black Engineers, and co-author of the study, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Collaboration, Mentorship and Sponsorship, and the Role of Networks and Professional Organizations for Women in STEMM” (2020).
This greater duty continues to lead to a reduction in research productivity for the professors, and with no reward for the extra service work, Dr. Williams said.
Age and apparent ageism rear their heads
Despite U.S. companies’ recalcitrance at offering women the flexibility they need at work, research showed that women caring for the elderly faced even greater ostracism. A study (Stovall et al. 2020) of 53 U.S. companies in the Standard & Poor’s 1200, which includes the 1,200 largest companies in the world, revealed that the firms were generally more supportive of parents of young children than family caregivers of adults.
Sixty-six percent of respondents said they were very supportive of parents with children age 5 or younger, while just 32% of companies said they were very supportive of family caregivers. Moreover, 60% said benefits for parents were a high priority amid the pandemic; only half that many — 30% — said the same for family caregivers of adults.
Indeed, 80% of the firms had no formal written policy focused on adult or elder care.
Older employees suffered, too. During the first six months of the pandemic, workers age 55 and older were 17% more likely to lose their jobs than employees who were just a few years younger, according to a report from the Retirement Equity Lab at the New School (Davis et al. 2020). That marked the first time in 50 years that older adults experienced higher unemployment than midcareer workers.
Roughly 1 million older adults would still have jobs if their unemployment rate matched that of midcareer workers ages 35 to 54.
Many older workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic may have decided to retire involuntarily or otherwise leave the labor force, which means they were omitted from official employment statistics.
Will a life-altering pandemic be enough to change systemic inequities?
So now what? Will such a life-altering experience as a global pandemic lead to change?
The McKinsey Global Institute’s research showed that a big push for equity will be financially rewarding. “We estimate that the global value of achieving best-in-region gender-parity improvements by 2030 could lead to $13 trillion of incremental GDP in that year, an 11 percent increase relative to [a] do-nothing scenario,” the report said.
There’s no time to waste, the report said. “A middle path — taking action only after the [pandemic] crisis has subsided rather than now — would reduce the potential opportunity by more than $5 trillion. The cost of that delay amounts to three-fourths of the total global GDP we could potentially lose to COVID-19 this year.”
Other silver linings may just yet open up. Everyone from editorial writers to business coaches have urged CEOs and academic leaders to become more understanding of other people’s challenges and allow for greater work flexibility.
Professional organizations play a critical role in helping support women, particularly in STEMM, and in bringing about much-needed gender equity changes.
The process must start at the top, with decision-makers realizing they need to “think about who’s not in the room” when they’re making key decisions about work and processes, Dr. Williams said. And they should rely on professional organizations and the networks they’ve worked hard to build to show them the way.
“One place where bias comes in is when you’re making decisions in a time crunch,” Dr. Williams said. “You have to really check your bias because, often, making the quickest decision is not the inclusive one.”
Abdullah, M.M., Schmidt Campbell, M., and Reynold Verret, C. (Speakers) (2020). COVID-19, Systemic Racism, and the Responses of HBCUs: A Virtual Town Hall Discussion (Video). National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Betcherman, G. et al. (2020). Reacting Quickly and Protecting Jobs: The Short-Term Impacts of the COVID-19 Lockdown on the Greek Labor Market. IZA Discussion Papers, 13516. Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
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