Young Women's Careers May Never Recover from the Coronavirus Crisis
Between the wage gap, gender bias, and caregiving expectations, women are at a disadvantage.
On the second Sunday of March, I packed up a bag to bring to my parents’ house in upstate New York, said good bye to my roommates, and left my New York City apartment for what I thought would be a few days. My parents are moving soon, and I planned to return to pack up my childhood room. What I didn’t know then, however, was that instead of cleaning out my room, I’d be settling into it, with no idea of when I could go back to the city. While I unofficially moved home to be with my family during quarantine, it also allows me to save money while my income from freelance writing has stalled. Many young women I know, however, are moving home solely because they can’t pay the rent, and they haven't been in the workforce long enough to have established a financial safety net to fall back on in a crisis.
At first, I thought my job as a writer wouldn’t be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Unlike those in service, healthcare, or other essential industries, I’m traditionally remote. But, like so many others, I’ve been forced to deal with the ramifications of a hurt economy, losing monthly writing assignments as companies cut their freelance budgets and losing the income I’ve spent years of my career working to secure. At 23, I worry that I am one of many young women who will experience something of a “coronavirus wall” as the pandemic continues. Like the “maternal wall,” which refers to a stagnation in mothers' and pregnant women's earnings as employers begin to view them as less competent and committed workers and overlook them for raises and promotions, something we could call the “coronavirus wall” affects young women disproportionately.
While millions across the globe are suffering as jobs and — at the very least — salaries are cut, young women at the start of their careers are particularly vulnerable to the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, and even at risk of being set back in ways that will make it nearly impossible to catch up to their male colleagues in terms of both pay and advancement. As a group, they’re not only at a disadvantage because of the preexisting wage gap between men and women, as well as gender bias in the workplace, but, more so than their male counterparts, they’re expected to act as caregivers for their aging parents and young children during quarantine, which takes them away from work that pays. Altogether, these factors can put a halt to their careers during this time.
The aforementioned “maternal wall” is a good parallel for this effect. For new mothers, taking maternity leave isn’t just a “pause” on their careers, but something that impedes their entire trajectory in the workforce by blocking their earning capability in a way that is impossible to recover from, regardless of their engagement and production at work. New fathers meanwhile, can more easily jump back in where they left off and continue rising. According to the National Women’s Law Center, full-time working mothers make an average of $0.69 for every dollar fathers make, compared to the $0.80 per dollar women without children make, on average, compared to men.
A similar pattern is already beginning to emerge among young women as people across industries move to work from home due to the virus — this despite the fact that women are more vital to the economy than ever. “In January, women surpassed men in U.S. labor market participation,” Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, told InStyle. But their contribution is not reflected in their pay, sick leave, or benefits — and the consequences may be felt for the rest of their time in the workforce.
A March 2020 Glassdoor Survey of 1,000 American adults about the impact of COVID-19 on their careers outlined the extra obstacles women are facing to continue building their career during this crisis. Before working from home was mandatory in many states, 15% of female employees surveyed reported that they were encouraged or required to work from home, while 26% of the men surveyed reported the same. This created an impossible choice for many women to either continue working and risk exposing themselves or their loved ones to the coronavirus, or risk losing their jobs and the income needed to provide for their families.
If women or their loved ones are sick, they’re also at a disadvantage: Only 11% of female employees were offered additional paid or unpaid sick leave, compared to 20% of men.
On top of the impact for office workers, women hold two-thirds of low-wage jobs, like waitressing, that can’t be done remotely, according to National Women's Law Center. The CDC also reported that women make up 80 percent of healthcare workers — those quite literally risking their lives on the front lines of this pandemic. “It is now more important than ever to work on equal pay because women come into this crisis now, on average, getting paid 20% less than men. Women of color are even further behind the curve,” says Tina Tchen, CEO of TIME’S UP. “That just illustrates how we have less savings to then fall back on and we have less support to fall back on. These issues of gender equity, workplace fairness, creating safe and dignified workplaces for everyone, aren't just things we do when times are good, they are key structural supports for workers and for employers when times are tough.”
Another obstacle beyond the pay gap that can impact women’s careers right now: whether for their parents or young children, women are often seen as the default caregivers. “As schools and child care centers close, and as family members fall ill, women are typically the ones who shoulder the lion’s share of additional caregiving responsibilities,” says Emily Martin, vice president of Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “As a result, women will disproportionately be the ones who lose their jobs or reduce their hours, and thus their income, to meet these care needs which are crashing down on so many working families right now. That has effects on their wage earning now and could leave them in a hole even after this crisis has receded.”
Charleeta, 34, is a certified Neuro-Linguistics Programming (NLP) master practitioner and clinical hypnotherapist who has spent the last two years building a client base for her life coaching practice in Dallas. But after moving home to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to take care of her mom, who is considered at-risk given a recent ovarian cancer diagnosis, her business is taking a hit. “I have growing concerns about being the sole caretaker for my mother who is in treatment for ovarian cancer. When the outbreak began, my mother had just been diagnosed and my entrepreneurial star was rising,” says Charleeta. “Moving forward, as if the added responsibility of caring for my mother isn't enough, I suspect that I will have to create more of my own opportunities for collaboration and visibility because the demographic and the collective mindset is more limited here [than in Dallas].”
But while myself and many other young women navigating the impact of COVID-19 are incredibly fortunate to have our parents’ homes to fall back on, it’s important to acknowledge that many others don’t have that option.
Cassandra, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, lives alone in Queens, N.Y. She taught over 20 classes a week before her studio shut down temporarily, but she didn’t feel comfortable moving home and potentially infecting her parents. Now she has to figure out a way to move her platform online and pay the bills. “At home, my mom works in a hospital and is close to being the sole income for my family at the moment. My dad has preexisting heart and lung conditions and cannot get sick. So I'm alone. Unemployed. And locked in the apartment I can't afford,” she says. “I started an online platform for my classes. That's been going pretty well actually, but it's still not enough to pay rent or buy groceries yet, let alone have the savings and life plans that most 30 year olds are looking to have.”
Whether you’ve found yourself unemployed, working remotely, or some weird mix of the two like me, “you're also not getting the opportunities you might otherwise to advance your career [during the pandemic],” says Tchen. Even though I typically work remotely, I still attend multiple work events each month that allow me to network and expand my opportunities. Without these in-person connections, it’s harder for me to get my name out there, discover new opportunities in my industry, and determine what I should be paid for different jobs.
For those still employed as part of a team that has moved online, the privilege of having the option to work remotely can feel like a blessing — hello, later wake up call — but that said, women, more than men, are missing out on key, in-office opportunities. “The moment when a boss says, oh why don't you come and join me in this meeting. If the meeting is just a Zoom call that only five people get the invite to, you're not getting to watch and observe those meetings,” says Tchen, explaining how a gender bias can be easier to curb in an office environment.
"Even under normal circumstances, it is important to be visible, responsive, and attuned to priority work,” says Lancaster. “But this is especially true for women who are working remotely during the pandemic. Priorities may change for employers because of the crisis, and those changes need to be clearly communicated.”
I’m scared of the uphill battle myself and other young women face trying to get our careers upright after this the pandemic ends, but together we can fight for equal pay and other necessary precautions to ensure that we get every chance at the career we deserve. National paid sick leave, precautions to ensure equal pay, and a more equal balance of caregiving responsibilities can help ensure that women are set up as well as men to weather crises. Voting in representatives in favor of these measures, standing up for our rights, and asking for what we deserve are all little steps we can take today toward an equal future for all tomorrow.
The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.