By Katharine Carlon

When it comes to women in the workplace, it’s the best of times.

And it’s the worst of times.

In some respects, women have never been so large and in charge. From holding the second-highest office in the land to holding court in the C-suite, where record numbers of women are running America’s top companies, progress is undeniable.

Long sought-after flexible and remote work is here to stay. Child care, a major impediment to women’s forward momentum for years, has finally taken center stage. Female entrepreneurship is on the rise, and women are on course for one of the largest wealth shifts in history, set to take control of much of the $30 trillion in financial assets to be passed on by baby boomers by 2030.

“In so many ways, we’re making such strides,” said Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO of Cedar Rapids-based Women Lead Change, who is living up to her organization’s name by throwing her hat into the ring as a candidate in the city’s upcoming mayoral race. “We are really starting to see more women on boards of directors and more women in the C-suite. We’re seeing attention on issues we’ve been talking about for years, like child care and flexible work. That part has been so encouraging.”

Yet when the bomb that was the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, it sent shrapnel in every direction, especially where working women were concerned. Its shockwaves tilted an uneven playing field further askew and left the pitch strewn with as many setbacks as silver linings.

In what’s been popularly described as a “she-cession,” women have borne the brunt of pandemic fall-out.

According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), 2.3 million women (compared to 1.8 million men) have left the workforce since the start of the crisis, bringing their labor participation down to a 33-year low.

And Iowa has not been spared. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the number of unemployed women more than doubled statewide in 2020, from 20,000 to 42,000.

“We know that participation is down to 1977 levels … 140,000 jobs were lost [nationally] just in December and all of them were women,” said Dawn Oliver Wiand, president and CEO of the Coralville-based Iowa Women’s Foundation, noting the crisis has magnified problems that have existed for years – doing the same work for less pay, primary responsibility for child care and household duties, and being routed into “mommy tracks” that offer little chance for advancement. “Now, with COVID, a spotlight is being shone on it, and there is an opportunity because we can’t lose the strides we have made. We can’t take steps backward.”

Why this time is different

This recession is unlike any that came before it, according to Ann Oberhaser, director of Women’s and Gender Studies and professor of sociology at Iowa State University. Since 1949, every economic downturn either impacted men more heavily, as in 2007-09, or depressed women’s and men’s employment about equally.

The reason, she said, is two-fold: First, the pandemic rained body blows on service industries where women are traditionally overrepresented, like retail, hospitality and tourism – industries that have largely yet to recover. Second, “A lot of the household burdens continue to fall on women’s shoulders – schooling their kids or taking care of elderly people,” she said. “And that’s been the case, almost forever, right? But with the pandemic, it just makes it much more accentuated.”

Ms. O’Donnell calls it the “second or third shift.” Citing a McKinsey & Co. report, she said women were already one-and-a-half times more likely than men to report working an additional three hours a day on domestic chores even before the pandemic.

“So that’s the second shift, and now we’re adding homeschooling, the third shift,” she said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing burnout is one of the largest contributors to women leaving the workforce … You have women feeling like they can’t bring their whole selves to work. They’re really trying to juggle everything and they’re feeling like they can’t.”

An online study conducted last month by the University of Illinois at Chicago on behalf of Women Lead Change underlines the pressures women are under. More than 80% reported feeling at least some symptoms of depression over the past month. And it’s little wonder: Married working women, who made up most of the sample, overwhelmingly reported they are shouldering most of the household responsibilities, from shopping to cleaning and preparing meals, as well as the bulk of child care and overseeing children’s at-home education.

The study also suggested the more children women had and the younger those children were, the higher the impulse to quit. And women without children are also suffering, reporting higher levels of job insecurity.

In an unscientific online survey (see pages  8 and 10) of working women conducted by the CBJ, women gave voice to the frustration and pressure of the past year – the feeling, as Ms. O’Donnell put it, they’re “at their breaking point.”

“I’m a full-time employed single mom who has my son remote learning and am still dealing with home repairs from the derecho,” said a credit analyst working in the region while handling school duty, repair work and employer expectations that she put in more than 40 hours a week.

“Getting in extra hours of work on nights and weekends doesn’t take place [until] my son is in bed, since I have no one else to watch him,” she said. “To advance, you need to not be using your PTO and putting in the extra hours off the clock to push more deals through … Since my ability to work overtime is very limited, this expectation sets me back from advancement.”

Finding enough time to handle both work and home was by far the most common complaint cited in the CBJ survey. But others spoke of the COVID-19 crisis limiting opportunities for upward mobility, feeling they had to take on extra duties women with partners and children did not, difficulty with focus, and employer-imposed policies and practices that put women at a disadvantage.

“My employer doesn’t believe that people working remotely get as much work done because he’s said himself that he ‘doesn’t get much done when working from home,’” said a woman working for an Iowa City service provider. “I disagree and feel that I get a lot of work done at home (almost more work done) because there are not the same distractions as when I’m in the office.”

Liz Hilton Segel, managing partner for McKinsey & Co. North America, estimates it could take until at least 2024 for women to begin pulling out of the slump.

A recent study Ms. Segel worked on found more than 40% of mothers with young children describing an [additional] 15 hours a week of work, “at a time when women are already doing more,” she said at the online “Actions Speak Louder than Words Summit” sponsored by Worth magazine last month. “That’s a little bit like saying, ‘Please have your full-time job and your part time job on the side.’ And I think you’re seeing that emotional fraying.”

Impact on wages and mobility could linger

With vaccinations well underway and businesses beginning to plan their recoveries, there is hope the issues spotlighted by the pandemic could lead to reform. Once-hidden barriers have burst dramatically into public view.

“Through these crises, we really see the [gender] gap much more starkly and that gives me hope,” said Ms. Oberhauser. But, she warns, some damage is likely to be long-lasting.

“Some of the long-term impacts are going to include promotions and job advancement – women are going to be delayed,” she said. “There are also long-term impacts for people who lose jobs or don’t have an income in terms of retirement and Social Security. Women live longer, and if you have these economic insecurity or economic issues, that’s only going to be accentuated for older women who have less time to make up lost ground.”

BLS data shows that Iowa women aged 45-54 were hit harder than any other age group, with employment falling 18% in 2020. That’s nearly two and a half times the national decrease of 7% in that age cohort.

Women of color faced even more insecurity. Black Iowans, despite accounting for just 4% of Iowa’s population, made up about 12% of claims, triple their representation in the general population.

“Again, this is nothing new, but people of color – Latina and black women – have much higher levels of all of these issues around long-term unemployment,” Ms. Oberhauser said. “They tend to have more responsibilities with some of the household care, and women of color tend to be more concentrated in some of these lower level, lower-paying service sector jobs in health care or retail.”

According to the Women Lead Change-commissioned study, the pressures of the past year have fallen most heavily on average employees and middle managers. Both groups reported more stress about job security and employer-mandated work changes that negatively impacted their future career and earnings trajectories. The three most common such changes reported by Iowa working women were employers freezing promotions, being unwilling to pay for professional development and pandemic-related pay cuts.

“And just in terms of being able to move ahead – those opportunities for networking, the water cooler talks, the meetings before and after the meetings, and turning down stretch assignments – all those things we know are really impactful in terms of somebody really trying to make a mark and ascend in an organization, we’re not willing to put ourselves out there right now,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “We just aren’t sure we can do it all. And rightly so.”

So many women leaving the workforce or just treading water is expected to have real implications for women’s earnings, which had slowly improved in recent years, relative to men. At the start of the pandemic, women had closed the pay gap to 81.6 cents on the dollar, up from 60.2 cents in 1980.

Here in Iowa, BLS data shows women had made similar progress earning, 80.3 cents to every dollar earned by men – although the gap was far wider for older women and women of color, and varied considerably by industry. Iowa women in finance and insurance, for instance, earned just 62% of their male counterparts pre-pandemic.

That still amounted to a marked difference – and a vast one over time. The NWLC last year estimated a lifetime gap of $445,400 between Iowa men and women over a 40-year career, with the average woman having to work until age 71 to earn what the average man earns by age 60.

But at least the trend was on an upswing.

While it is too early to quantify how the pandemic will hurt female earning power, the journal Socius found the combined losses in women’s wages from child care and school supervision hours alone could add up to $64.5 billion annually if the recovery does not account for the unique challenges faced by women.

“Child care was not working before COVID and it certainly has not since,” said IWF’s Ms. Wiand, whose organization has prioritized addressing the state’s child care crisis, which she called “the biggest economic barrier facing women” both before and, especially since, the pandemic.

According to IWF, a third of Iowa’s child care facilities had already closed in the five years leading up to 2020, leaving one in four in child care deserts. Even more closed due to the pandemic, Ms. Wiand said, praising Gov. Kim Reynolds for recently appointing a task force to urgently address the need.

“Now, finally, a spotlight is shining brightly on it,” she said, adding a solution was key to women not falling backward.

According to the NWLC, women leaving the workforce spiked sharpest as children returned to school in September 2020, when 1.1 million Americans left the workforce, 80% of them women.

“It doesn’t mean just not earning,” Ms. Segel said. “It also means they’re not picking up skills and experience, and as they re-enter the workforce, they may re-enter with maybe more uncertainty, or potentially even a recession in their own skill set.”

Misti Gaither, director and global head of diversity, inclusion and belonging for job-seeking site Indeed, said that women were already suffering from not being included in happy hours, golf course outings, racetrack excursions and other places men traditionally broker deals. Now they are stressed, overtaxed and mostly unseen.

“Decisions are made for women without us being consulted about what’s best for our path,” she said. “And a big topic right now is the ‘return to work’ program. As we’ve seen so many millions of women exiting the workforce because of the COVID pandemic, what are we doing to create opportunities for them to return? How do we support them, so they don’t feel like they need to exit and then are further behind on their path to leadership?”

A crisis in leadership

While the pandemic has hit low- and mid-earning women hardest, women who have managed to rise through the ranks are feeling its bite as well. According to McKinsey, 1 in 4 working women have considered a step down or leaving the workforce altogether, and an estimated two million women will walk away from their jobs – 100,000 of them in senior- level positions.

“The pandemic has set women back so far and we will continue to see the impact of this for years to come,” one top executive in the financial services field told the CBJ, adding that while her own company has done a good job of navigating the crisis and gender issues, the same cannot be said of the workforce as a whole.

By historic measures, 2020 was a watershed for women on top. In addition to Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration includes five women cabinet members. In the business world, a record 42 women were running Fortune 500 companies as of March, including two Black women.

Iowa women have made leadership strides as well. Based on publicly available information, the CBJ calculated that women in executive leadership at Iowa’s largest companies slightly exceeded the national average of 29%. Women made up 29.8% of the C-suite population at the 22 companies comprising the Iowa Business Council, a coalition of the state’s largest employers. Women made up 28.2% of the seats on those boards, ahead of their 22.6% representation on boards of Russell 3000 companies.

“I think society and our culture recognize the case for women in diversity of thought and leadership and Iowa is keeping up, even a little ahead,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “That’s a positive.”

Yet even women who have professionally “made it” are struggling, she said, recalling a recent interaction with women leaders in which she asked how they were managing the pressures of the pandemic.

“And the first person looks down and she looks back up and she has tears in her eyes,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “And she starts to cry. I’m like, OK, I do this stuff all the time. I’m feeling completely ill-equipped, because I don’t know her, but I’m feeling her. And it wasn’t just her … Each one of them had tears. So that tells you the emotional toll.”

Ms. O’Donnell next asked the group if any felt like quitting.

“And they all said yes,” she said. “What’s alarming to me is the number of senior female leaders who are dropping out, citing mostly burnout as the reason. These are women who’ve gotten there, who’ve made it, and these are the women that oftentimes bring the others up – millions of women, for that matter.”

Any loss in female leadership hurts women and other diverse hires working under them, Ms. Segel said.

“Senior level women bear a disproportionate role in the culture of the organization as it relates to promoting diversity inclusion,” she said, citing mentoring and sponsoring employees of color. “As an example, 38% of senior level women currently are the mentor or sponsor to one or more women of color, compared to only 23% of senior level men. So when you lose women at the top, when they’re already in short supply, it actually creates a downstream impact on the organization. It’s difficult to recover from.”

Mixed climate for business owners and entrepreneurs

While the pandemic has been a fertile period for entrepreneurs – not necessarily for the most positive of reasons – established women business owners are dealing with all the stress of their counterparts in the corporate world plus responsibility for employees, many of them women themselves, and the survival of enterprises they’ve poured their blood, sweat, tears and money into.

Erin Huiatt, Iowa president of FemCity, a members-only networking organization for women launching and growing businesses or growing careers within traditional settings, said her 200-plus members have had to reassess goals, step back and, in some cases, shut down entirely over the past year. They’ve faced the same intense family and household pressures as all working women, while also trying to figure out innovative ways to stay open, access emergency grant and Paycheck Protection Program loans, and navigate temporary closures that sometimes turned into permanent ones.

“Within the group, there’s been a lot of vulnerability, women just coming in and saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to survive this,’” she said. In many cases, “women-owned business did pivot and think of really original creative ideas, and some of them are super successful.” But in others, especially for less-established businesses, the pandemic was a death knell.

It’s a setback for a state that had climbed from dead last in the rankings for number of women-owned businesses to ninth best in the nation in early 2020, according to Fit Small Business, and among the top 10 in economic clout growth rate – a measure of the growth of women-owned businesses in numbers, employment and revenue – in American Express’ 2019 State of Women-Owned Business Report.

According to the American Express report, women-owned firms employed an estimated 93,948 Iowans pre-pandemic and generated $15.1 billion in sales, an 11% increase over a five-year time frame.

But, typical for this imbalanced pandemic, women business owners were hit harder than men, with the National Bureau of Economic Research estimating about 25% of women-owned businesses closed completely between February and April 2020 versus about 20% of those owned by men. And studies have shown women and minority business owners got less than their fair share of PPP loans.

Laurie Fabiano, president of the Tory Burch Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering women entrepreneurs, said the pandemic has laid bare longtime hurdles from access to capital to reliable child care. Before the pandemic, “ever resourceful” women bootstrapped or borrowed money from family members when they couldn’t get a loan, she said, and pieced together “band aid solutions” to care for children.

“The pandemic ripped off all the band aids,” said Ms. Fabiano, speaking at “Two Steps Back,” a March webinar on women-owned businesses hosted by the American Association of University Women. “And even the title of tonight’s talk, ‘two steps back …’ To be honest, I don’t think it’s two steps back, because we never really got two steps forward. We got where we thought we were with a lot of workarounds, a lot of temporary solutions.”

What’s more, women are largely on their own now, Mabel Abraham, assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School, said at the same event.

“What we know is that networks and relationships are so important for accessing the kinds of resources that female entrepreneurs need, whether it be capital or business development,” she said adding that even in the best of times, women tend to lean on other women, excluded from broader, diverse networks that offer connections to high-status individuals and resources. “Then we take something like the pandemic, that has put everyone in isolation … the barriers for developing relationships are even more magnified.”

Numbers bear that out. Mastercard’s most recent Index of Women Entrepreneurs reported 87% of women business owners said they had suffered negative effects from the health crisis. However, the study also suggests the pandemic could catalyze change and highlight women’s ability to adapt and overcome obstacles. Forty-two percent have switched to a digital business model and 34% have identified new business opportunities since the pandemic.

Some women, according to Ms. Huiatt, are using this time to ditch traditional employment and launch new businesses. Although not broken down by gender, applications for new businesses have spiked in Iowa. U.S. Census Bureau figures show the number of permits issued in the state was up almost 21% year-over-year as of February.

“We see people who were maybe let go taking advantage of that and saying, this is the perfect opportunity to jump in and start something new,” Ms. Huiatt said. “Or maybe if they were doing something on the side, they decided, ‘I’m not going back to that full-time job. I’m going to really just jump into this passion that I’ve had.’ The opportunities are definitely there.”

“We are experiencing a real opportunity to see what we can do away from a conventional cubicle and I’m sure that’s fueling entrepreneurship,” Ms. O’Donnell agreed. “And I need to add, our minority women have been leading this charge of entrepreneurship. They are leading the charge of, ‘You know what? I see the culture here, I don’t need this, and I’m going to go make my own success.’”  CBJ