Op-Ed: From ‘SHEcession’ to ‘SHEcovery’: How We Can Bring Women Back Into The Workplace

Dr. C. Nicole Mason on coining the term ‘SHEcession,’ and helping women in the workplace

The pandemic brought about the perfect storm for women and mothers.

At the start of 2020, we were celebrating the fact women were more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce. While we were celebrating, I knew that underneath this milestone, many women were struggling with issues of care and to make ends meet. 

Within a matter of months, the pandemic all, but wiped out those gains. In fact, during the first few months of the pandemic, more than 2 million women fell out of the workforce. This economic hardship, coupled with school and daycare closures has had a devastating impact on women, particularly women employed in the hardest hit sectors like retail, childcare and hospitality.

This moment is historic and unprecedented. Neither the Great Depression or the Great Recession in 2008, impacted women more than men. According to the analysis conducted by Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) of the U.S. Department of Labor Statics’ January 2021 Employment Situation report, women still hold 5.3 million fewer jobs on payroll than they did in February 2020 (before the COVID recession hit). Sharp racial disparities persist among women’s unemployment, with rates 67 percent higher for Black women and 73 percent higher for Hispanic women than for white women. 

Some of the most heartbreaking stories have come from mothers who have been employed for decades with the same employer and suddenly found themselves without a job or income. Many women have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks and many of them are the primary breadwinners in their families. 

The other thing I hear about is the uncertainty — women are reluctant to look for jobs or re-enter the workforce because they don’t know when schools or daycares will re-open fully. Almost one in four children experienced food insecurity in 2020 (Feeding America), which is closely, if not directly linked to  maternal income losses.

As president and CEO of IWPR, a leading voice on pay equity, economic policies, and research impacting women, I wanted to accurately capture the disproportionate impact the COVID-fueled economic downturn was having on women. I landed on the term SHEcession. I wanted to make sure that policy and decision makers understood how this moment was different from other economic downturns, and center women in conversations about solutions.  

It’s not just layoffs. 

I am a single mother by choice to 11-year-old twins. They just transitioned to middle school. I can work between 40-50 hours a week, sometimes more. It’s really been difficult to manage my schedule and ensure that they are online learning. In the beginning, it was a huge adjustment. I feel very fortunate to work from home and have great broadband and internet access. Many women are unable to work from home, and many students do not have safe spaces to learn. 

The result? Mothers are being pushed out of the workforce. According to a recent New York Times analysis of the Current Population Survey, almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce — with Black mothers, Hispanic mothers and single mothers among the hardest hit. 

It’s not a temporary problem. 

According to one study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “pandemic recession depreciates the skills of women who reduce their hours or drop out of the labor force all together,” and as a result, 2020 alone could widen the pay gap by 5%. Here is how we can individually, and collectively, contribute to the SHEcovery:

Employers have a role to play in supporting Women in the Workforce.

Early in the pandemic, I had to work with my scheduler to build blocks of time into my schedule to make sure I still have time to support my kids’ online learning. But this kind of flexibility isn’t available to every mom.

Right now, employers have a vital role to play in helping women get back to work and sustain employment. Supports like workplace flexibility can help many women manage their workload, but other supports like childcare and paid sick leave can be just as, if not more helpful in ensuring that women can advance their careers and stay in the workforce. 

Employers can also conduct a workplace audit that covers issues like pay, benefits, leave and promotion policies, and other related issues to ensure their policies and practices support, rather than hinder women’s success in the workplace.  

Have a conversation with your partner, co-parent or community.

In many ways, unfair expectations still dictate a woman’s role in society and in a relationship. Even if partners intend to split care-tasks evenly, the burden can fall unevenly on women. 

Compared to men, women are almost twice as likely to reduce their working hours to provide childcare according to our research at IWPR and are almost three times more likely to not be working at all due to childcare demands based on the United States Census in August 2020.

For partners and co-parents, discussing care tasks and finding a healthier division can help relieve some of the stress and ease the burden of responsibility when it comes to caregiving. For single parents, connecting with your family and community for support can help you find balance and feel less alone. 

Push for change in legislation.

One of the most important ways we can make a difference is pushing for legislation that helps women get back to work and keep from falling further behind. Now is the time to think boldly about what it will take to build a more equitable society — one where women have opportunities to reach their full potential without harm or barriers. 

Right now, we have an opportunity to create workplaces that support and allow women to advance in the careers. We should be working towards a national childcare infrastructure. Raising the minimum wage and increasing paid sick leave will also be important for working women.

To ensure women who have lost jobs do not fall further behind, we can also put our support behind Federal housing assistance and food-stamp benefits. Legislators must prioritize women workers in the hardest-hit sectors to slow down the losses.

Seek out resources for professional development and advice. 

The rules of society that govern the way we work and raise our families were not made by or created for women. To change that, we must create a new future together.

If you’re out of work, on the brink of leaving the workforce or hoping to help other women get back to work, attending summits or professional development coaching sessions can make a major difference in reclaiming the progress we have made toward gender equality.

One upcoming opportunity is the No7 Unstoppable Together Job Summit on February 24, 2021. The summit is free and focused on getting women back to work in 2021 – offering women free workshops and coaching from female mentors and thought leaders, including Maria Shriver, Kate Walsh, myself and more. Sign up here for free and get more information on the summit. 

Getting back to work and overcoming the SHEcession will not happen overnight but taking action in our personal and professional lives, and in our communities can go a long way in getting us closer to a SHEcovery. 


About Dr. C. Nicole Mason: Dr. C. Nicole Mason is the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a leading voice on pay equity, economic policies, and research impacting women. Dr. Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America(St. Martin’s Press) and has written hundreds of articles on community development, women, poverty, and economic security. Her writing and commentary have been featured in the New York TimesMSNBCCNNNBCCBSReal ClearPoliticsNationWashington PostMarie Claire, the ProgressiveESSENCEBustleBIG THINKMiami HeraldDemocracy Now, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others.