Pandemic Pressure: A Toll on Women's Finances
For Women's History Month, we talked to a BECU employee about a common challenge for women: Balancing a career and family during the pandemic. For many women, pandemic-related setbacks could have lasting effects on their financial futures.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Marybeth R.'s plate was already full. She was working full-time at a BECU Neighborhood Financial Center, going to college, managing her father-in-law's landscaping company on the side, and parenting three kids with her husband, who also worked full-time.
Then everything shut down. On top of the stress of health concerns surrounding COVID, both Marybeth and her husband, who works in retail, had jobs that required them to work in person. But schools were sending students home for remote learning. Private childcare centers were either closed or full, and hiring in-home childcare was cost prohibitive. Someone was going to have to care for the kids, ages 4, 5 and 10 at the time, and help them navigate the new challenges of virtual school.
Luckily for Marybeth, her mother-in-law, who lives nearby, stepped in to help with childcare but Marybeth was still primarily responsible for helping the kids with online school meetings and filling in as their at-home teacher.
Marybeth felt like they were holding it together for about a month — until her husband's coworker tested positive for COVID and the family had to quarantine. They were worried. Family members have chronic illnesses that put them at great risk if they got infected with COVID. Their situation was becoming unmanageable.
"I had to ask myself, 'Do I leave my job, or does he leave his job?'" Marybeth said. "We discussed how we were going to maintain our lifestyle and take care of our kids and take care of our family knowing one of us could get very, very ill."
Like millions of women, she decided she would be the one to step back from her career. Fortunately, that didn't mean leaving work completely. BECU launched a "redeployment team" that helped place Marybeth in a role she could do from home, working as part of the BECU contact center team. The job had different responsibilities, and a career change came with uncertainty about what future career and financial advancement opportunities would look like, but it seemed like her best option.
"I was really the only one who had some leeway to make a change," Marybeth said. "I'd have to figure out my career later, and I'd need to take time off from school. I had to juggle my work, my kids' Zoom calls and being their full support when family could not help."
Women More Likely To Lose Work, Income
Like Marybeth, many women stepped back from their career track or left their jobs entirely during the pandemic, either by choice or because their employers laid them off.
The National Women's Law Center reported in a March 2022 fact sheet that women account for 68.5% of the 2.1 million net job loss (PDF) in the U.S. since February 2020. Those losses were more pronounced among women of color, especially Black women and Latinas. While unemployment increased for all genders during the pandemic, men have since recouped their pandemic-related labor force losses, according to the NWLC's February 2022 analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics' data. Meanwhile, more than 1 million fewer women were in the labor force in January 2022 compared with February 2020.
For millions of women, caring for children or adult family members was a driver in their decision to leave work, not return to work or downshift their careers. An even greater number left the workforce and remained out of work because of the overrepresentation of women in hospitality, retail and service jobs that were hard-hit during the pandemic. Those sectors haven't recovered yet.
Regardless of the cause of unemployment, or less employment, the burden of domestic responsibility and childcare already fell disproportionately to women, and that burden increased during the pandemic with more family members staying home. The Society for Human Resource Management points out that women leaving the workforce in greater numbers than men to care for children isn't new. The "motherhood penalty" has always set women back financially. Besides the immediate reduction in income, reduced work or temporarily leaving the workforce could affect advancement and have long-term effects on retirement savings. Citing research by PayScale, CNBC's Make It reported the peak earning age for women is 44 and for men it's 55.
A McKinsey report said the pandemic exacerbated those problems: One in four women were considering leaving the workforce or taking on less-demanding roles compared with one in five men. The rate was 10 percentage points higher than men for mothers of children under 10.
Pressures of Working From Home
Marybeth was grateful that she could continue working and be home to help her kids with school, but different parts of her life were suddenly in immediate competition for her time and attention.
"I want to give my work a hundred percent, but there's this expectation that because you're at home, you're also taking care of the housework and the kids. At times, I'm deciding by the minute whose needs should come first but never my own," she said.
Her husband hadn't been in his job long enough to get paid leave, so when he got sick with COVID, the family had to dip into their emergency savings. They were thankful they had that cushion, but it was stressful.
In November 2021, Marybeth got a shot at a big project — interim program manager for a multilingual pilot with BECU's Office of Equity and Inclusion. As a Latina, and the primary translator for her family when she was growing up, it's a project she is passionate about. She saw it as an opportunity to regain some of the ground she lost in her career during the pandemic.
That's why Marybeth continued working from home when she got COVID, despite her manager encouraging her to take the time she needed to get better. Plus, she still had to care for her children while her husband was away at work.
"I was still responsible for making food and making sure everyone was OK," Marybeth said. "I lost my voice. My whole body hurt. I had migraines. But I didn't want being sick to hold me back from the work I am passionate about."
Marybeth's experience tracks with a report by UN Women. Looking at time spent on childcare alone, women around the world, on average, added 5.2 hours per week for childcare (PDF) compared with 3.5 additional childcare hours for men during the pandemic. In the U.S., women average a total of 27.6 hours per week on childcare, compared with 22.2 hours for men. The numbers vary with cultural differences. The hours committed to housework and caregiving tend to be even higher for Latinas (PDF) like Marybeth.
Burnout Is Higher for Working Women Than Men
Women who were able to remain in the workforce throughout the pandemic felt a different kind of stress: Burnout.
According to McKinsey, in 2020, "Despite companies' efforts to support employees during the crisis, women are feeling more exhausted, burned out, and under pressure than men are."
Burnout got worse the following year, according to the 2021 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and Lean In. One in three women said they considered stepping away from their career track for a less-demanding role or leaving work altogether, a rate increase from the one in four who considered changing jobs or leaving work a few months after the pandemic had started.
Marybeth's stress level went down a little when schools re-opened for in-person learning, but every time her children had a close-contact with someone who had COVID-19, they were sent home to quarantine. Online learning programs ended in the fall, so Marybeth was on the hook for helping her kids with their schoolwork while they quarantined.
"My oldest, in middle school, has been quarantined seven times. My other kids have been quarantined five times," Marybeth said. "I just try to take it one day one at a time."
Creating Equitable Working Conditions for Women
Before the pandemic began, women were slowly making progress in the workplace. According to McKinsey, from January 2015 to December 2019, the number of women who were senior vice presidents increased from 23% to 28%, and, at the executive level, from 17% to 21%. Women of color remained underrepresented at those levels.
The pandemic interrupted those gains.
"The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the disastrous consequences of longstanding racial and gender inequities in our economy," says the NWLC COVID-19 Jobs Day Reports webpage. "Between February and April 2020, women lost 12.2. million jobs, reversing an entire decade of job gains since the end of the Great Recession."
In addition to the positive effects for women, addressing inequities would improve global economic conditions, according to McKinsey: "Acting now to improve gender equity could add $13 trillion to global GDP."
Marybeth is doing her best to perform at a high level at work while caring for her family. She copes by finding small ways to care for herself — like making time to get a haircut, or, now that the kids are back in school, letting them eat school lunch sometimes instead of packing homemade lunch for them every day.
But, as many women also know, those small moments of self-care aren't improving the structural problems that have reinforced gender pay and opportunity gaps throughout history and worsened during the pandemic.
A flexible work schedule and working from home has given Marybeth more space to do her job well while taking care of her family. She also feels supported because her team is led by women who have families of their own. They understand the challenges Marybeth faces and encourage her to take care of herself. But Marybeth recognizes that her situation is specific to her current organization and team.
She'd like to see systemic change that creates equitable conditions for all working women. According to LeanIn.org, solutions could include: "...raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (nationally), making childcare more accessible and affordable, and providing national paid family leave."
Marybeth believes change needs to start with a societal shift in priorities: "We're going to have to reorganize our organizations to work for families."