A Call for Empathy: Valuing Women’s Experiences in the Workplace During the Pandemic
In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to discuss how women have been impacted by this pandemic and what we can do to help bring a different perspective and approach to equity in the workplace. We’ve heard much about how African American and Latinos are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, both physically and financially. This phenomenon did not develop in a vacuum nor overnight. The pandemic has simply uncovered and exacerbated a strain already present in those communities. The same is true of women, especially minority women in the workplace, over the last 12 months or so.
It’s no secret that women have faced significant challenges in their struggle for equality in this country. While there is an appearance of equality, research shows that there is still a significant disparity between the pay of men and women for comparable jobs. According to PayScale, last year, women made 82 cents on the dollar compared to men. Even in jobs where women make up the vast majority of the skilled labor force in a given sector, they still consistently make less than their male counterparts. To compound the problem further, minority women are overrepresented in the fields hardest hit by the pandemic (childcare, nursing, hospitality, etc.). This has created a recipe for disaster that will long outlast the pandemic which families will feel for years to come.
It goes without saying that gender pay equity in the workplace must be addressed. In the meantime, however, we must turn our attention to corporate leadership and consider a different view of “social responsibility”. A call for authentic empathy and understanding is required for meaningful change and progress.
Women are some of the hardest working people we know. They wear multiple hats and are usually “on” 24/7. The pandemic has only exponentially ramped up this juggling feat and tossed more pins. Women are often spouses, mothers, managers, team leads, executives, a chair of some nonprofit committee— at the same time on any given day. As difficult as that is to balance, add to that an invisible virus that has claimed the lives of millions that can creep into one’s home and silently wreak havoc. Now, these same active, working women are running their households in overtime, serving as protector-in-chief, impromptu substitute teacher while their children are virtually learning, and for many, caregiver to an elderly parent.
Women are simply exhausted, and they don’t have the luxury of just saying “I quit.” Too many people near and dear to their hearts are depending on them. Unfortunately, the inability to quit their role as mother, nurturer, and caregiver, has caused many women to make exits in other places where they find meaning and economic empowerment — their day jobs. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the female workforce has dropped to 57% within the last year. That’s the lowest it has been since 1988. It’s estimated that we may not see this figure rebound back to normal numbers until 2024.
The economic setback for women who have chosen to leave the workforce is startling. But even more startling are the number of women who have been pushed out of work by the pandemic. We’ve seen more than 1.4 million women pushed out of the workforce in general, and more than 150,000 Black women in particular. This is cause for alarm because we’re losing valuable expertise and years of experience simply because we were unprepared to support the women in our workforce. Those of us in leadership had and still have the power to reverse the trend and make the workplace more amiable and accommodating for women given their unique circumstances and the roles they play in our society. What we’re missing is empathy-driven work policies that help create better work environments, even when working remotely.
This is not a problem that we should be facing in 2021. In large part, the blame falls on corporate culture and the lack of women being invited to, sitting at, or heading the table of decision making. They must be a part of the conversations, especially those involving them and their own lives and livelihoods. We need their voices in the workplace. We need their value systems and priorities to help guide policies. We, as leaders in the workplace, need to check our blindspots and have more women speak to their experiences and accept them as valid and real, not trivialized addendums to our organizational agendas.
Our women employees and executives need to feel a sense of security and value in the workplace. When workers feel a sense of belonging, support, and care, they tend to perform better and are free to focus on the work that matters to them and not just on the next household emergency they need to tend to. When we work on inclusive corporate policies that address the needs of women we signal to them that they aren’t quotas, rather they’re valued as people who have real world needs.
The last consequence of the pandemic that I want to discuss is how this pandemic is pushing minority women out of entrepreneurship. As I mentioned earlier, women make up a considerable portion of the workforce for certain fields. The same is true for their entrepreneurial endeavors. The pandemic has taken a toll on the energy expenditures of women but also their revenue. Over the last several decades, the number of Black women small business owners has skyrocketed, which also translates to more jobs and increased capital flow in Black neighborhoods. When you look at the landscape of things and look at the facts this makes sense. Black women are among the most educated, yet face the most challenges in climbing the corporate ladder. So rather than asking for a seat at the table, many chose to build their own.
The pandemic has caused many of the gains we’ve seen in small business development to be at risk of going backwards. Black women tend to create businesses in the sectors that have been hardest hit, resulting in widespread layoffs and minimal operations. Nevertheless, progress must continue. Operation HOPE has made it a priority to support businesses, like these, that have an existing infrastructure and physical presence, but lack the virtual presence needed in a post-COVID world. These existing businesses, and new businesses, are being supported through our latest endeavor, 1 Million Black Businesses (1MBB), powered by HOPE and Shopify.
I believe this to be one of the most consequential initiatives that we’ve ever undertaken and is critical to the health and success of the Financial Dignity Movement in the years to come. This program seeks to raise the consciousness of ownership, entrepreneurship, and investment in Black families and communities by standing up one million Black-owned businesses over the next ten years across America. To say that I’m excited about the impact that this will bring for generations to come is an understatement. But these kinds of programs and initiatives, led by public-private partnerships, are what will help transform our country for the better and will help support existing and aspiring Black entrepreneurs, including women-led ventures.
Our focus isn’t on red or blue, and not Black or white – we’re looking to focus on the color green – that is capital. But “green” and capital have other implications besides money (which is still a tremendous need for existing and aspiring entrepreneurs). We are looking to help Black communities around America become “evergreen” for opportunity and investment so that we can begin righting the wrongs and injustices that have historically prevented millions of Black Americans as a whole and Black women in particular from creating and obtaining wealth.
We can be the difference we wish to see in our world and it begins with having an empathetic heart and mind. But it must be followed up by consequential and meaningful action. HOPE has taken the first step in supporting those who have historically been excluded, and are supporting women in their quest for financial equity. The question now is how will you support and engage? Feel free to learn more about 1 Million Black Businesses (1MBB) at www.hope1mbb.org and get involved today.
Let’s continue supporting women and women’s voices, not just this month, but every month. Happy Women’s History Month!