Over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an economic downturn—a “she-cession”—that continues to disproportionately affect women, including their participation in the workforce and long-term economic security. On April 14, 2021, the Wellesley Centers for Women hosted “Overcoming the She-cession: Supporting Women in the Workforce,” a virtual Social Change Dialogue, to discuss how the Biden-Harris administration can help women overcome the challenges of the pandemic and move the needle forward on gender equity.

The panel was moderated by WCW Executive Director Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., and included Shelly Anand, J.D., executive director and co-founder of Sur Legal Collaborative and a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2008 and the WCW Council of Advisors; Kristin Butcher, Ph.D., Marshall I. Goldman Professor of Economics at Wellesley College; and Deniz Çivril, Ph.D., research scientist at WCW.

“COVID has hit women hard because the economy is not easy on women,” said Çivril. “This is an opportunity for us to drive policy solutions not only to go back to what we had, but also to ask for an equitable recovery such that everybody can fulfill their potential.”

The panelists spoke about why the pandemic has had such negative impacts on women: Women are overrepresented in low-wage industries and jobs, often in the service sector, which made them both vulnerable to layoffs and more likely to drop out of the workforce to care for their children when schools and child care centers closed.

They discussed policy solutions like the implementation of paid sick leave, paid family leave, and flexible working hours. Along with WCW Senior Research Scientist Sari Kerr, Çivril and Butcher are currently examining whether paid sick leave and family medical leave ameliorated the health and economic effects of COVID-19 and exploring the effects of state paid leave laws on firms.

Butcher spoke about the challenges motherhood poses to women’s ability to thrive in high-wage occupations that require long and inflexible hours. “Understanding why some jobs demand certain structures is really important,” she said. “Are they really necessary for the job, or is it just a historical legacy of who was doing that job? I think understanding these things can help point the way forward for both political policymakers and firm policymakers.”

The panelists also discussed the need for lawmakers and employers to take an intersectional approach to supporting women in the workplace and to create environments where all workers feel safe and supported. Experiencing discrimination on the basis of both race and sex has profound physical and mental health impacts on women workers of color, and those who work in low-wage fields are often excluded from the protection of state and federal labor laws.

“There's a lot of grief, there's a lot of pain, there's a lot of sorrow from this pandemic and how it has made all the more apparent the systemic inequality in our country,” said Anand. “But there are really powerful advocates within these communities who are saying, ‘Enough, we're not doing this again’...And that's just a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”

April 20, 2021

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