Lisa Adkins, director and chief operating officer of the New Mexico coworking company FatPipe, said she’s noticed a surprising trend about the people who joined the coworking spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic began: Nearly all of the new members have been women.
“Obviously we still have some male members, but it does seem like the ones that have signed up recently have been women,” Adkins said.
Some have had to find new jobs during the past 12 months, while others are just looking for more flexibility to care for children and families, Adkins said.
While the trend has been a boon for the coworking company, it may be a symptom of a larger disruption to the workforce. The pandemic and associated restrictions have caused a wave of unemployment and forced many other workers to adapt to new ways of working.
And there’s a growing body of research showing that working women have faced the brunt of these impacts. Some researchers are concerned that these impacts may linger well after the pandemic abates.
“There are economic ramifications that are absolutely throwing back women’s rights for a couple decades,” said Julie Steinkopf, associate professor of sociology for New Mexico State University.
What’s behind the disparity?
The statistics beginning to come out of the pandemic paint a dire picture for women in the workforce. Of the nearly 4.3 million Americans that left the labor force between January 2020 and January 2021, roughly 58% have been women, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In September, four times more women than men dropped out of the workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
In New Mexico, there’s some evidence that fewer women are inventing new technologies since the pandemic began. Just one-third of invention disclosures from the University of New Mexico include at least one woman on the disclosure during the current fiscal year, compared to 56% the year prior, according to data supplied by Lisa Kuuttila at UNM Rainforest Innovations.
Researchers agree that the factors driving the disparity were in place before the pandemic began, but have been exacerbated by the unique conditions created by the virus.
“COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up,” reads an October report from the Brookings Institution on the pandemic’s impact on women in the workforce.
Nicole Bateman, senior research analyst for the Brookings Institution and co-author of the report, said the pandemic has hurt low-wage workers most, and women on average earn less than men.
“We often undervalue the work that women perform,” she said.
With schools and day cares limited or shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus, Bateman said the gaps in America’s child care system have become even more apparent during the pandemic.
She added that more of the work of taking care of kids in the house continues to fall to women, even when both parents are working.
“Historically, women have done more of the housework and child care, and that has remained the norm even as women have increasingly worked outside of the house,” Bateman said.
These added factors, on top of the ambient stress of the pandemic, have led to an uptick in mothers experiencing stress and burnout, said Kathryn Jacobson, associate dean at UNM’s Anderson School of Management.
“There are all of these different factors chipping at your ability to do high-quality work,” Jacobson said.
What can be done?
Going forward, Steinkopf said she’s concerned that some of the impacts could last far longer than the pandemic. Given that children model the behavior of their parents, Steinkopf said an environment where mothers are sacrificing their careers could subconsciously reinforce traditional gender roles.
“There’s both social and economic aspects that are both going absolutely the wrong way for women’s equity,” she said.
With the economy expected to steadily add back jobs over the next few years, experts pointed to a few steps that could help women share in that recovery equitably.
Steinkopf pointed to the Child Tax Credit expansion proposed by the Biden administration, which would provide up to $3,600 for children up to 6 years old, as a proposal that would help working women.
“Once women are able to go out and work and gain economic security, then we can start to … make strides,” she said.
Individual workplaces can make changes as well. Jacobson encouraged employers to be understanding and flexible about “pandemic gap years” when hiring new employees.
Kristelle Siarza, owner and CEO of the Albuquerque marketing and advertising firm Siarza Social Digital, said employers need to get more flexible with allowing employees to work from home and work around busy schedules. In some cases, she said this will require making changes to the company culture.
“Employers have to adapt, employers have to be able to make exceptions for women,” Siarza said.
Locally, some groups are taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, the Anderson School began launching its Women in Leadership advisory board, building off the work of a student organization.
Jacobson said the program will offer professional education and mentorship opportunities for female students preparing to enter the workforce. Ideally, Jacobson said the program will prepare more women for leadership roles once the pandemic abates.
“Post-pandemic, it would be great to not go back to business as usual,” Jacobson said.