Op-ed: Women, the Workforce and the Pandemic

The following is an op-ed piece by Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts

As a female executive, I have had to answer the same question for many years: “How are you able to balance your work and family?” Honestly, those questions have always frustrated me because they have never been asked of my husband. And I have been fortunate until recently, with a lot of help, to make it work.

I like to think I’ve always worked hard. But like the experiences of many other people since the pandemic hit, I don’t think I have ever worked harder than in the last seven months. Between juggling a full-time career and trying my best to virtually teach two children, there were many days I just didn’t think I could do it all. At a particularly low moment in April, when I was told by my daughter’s teacher that we had failed to turn in some of her NTI homework, I pulled the phrase that most of us have probably uttered at least once in 2020: “I’m doing the best I can.”

Women have struggled for decades to “have it all”- a professional career and a fulfilling home life — and we have made some slow, but steady strides.  I speak from firsthand experience: When I was named the president of the Kentucky Chamber in October 2019, I was the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s 75 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women held 50.04 percent of American jobs in December 2019. However, as with other issues, COVID-19 has heightened many inequities.  Just last month, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in the United States, compared to 216,000 men. That means four times as many women as men left the workforce. This is frankly unacceptable.

As we know, this troubling trend has developed as a result of school closures, a lack of child care, and the difficulties parents face in trying to balance work and home. Yes, many of us have been able to work from home over the past few months. But trying to work full time while guiding your children’s virtual learning, isn’t exactly what many envisioned when discussing the benefits of working from home. All of these factors have led many American women to make the difficult choice to leave their careers to take care of their families.

Generations of women have fought to have their place in the working world, but the economic progress they have gained is at risk of unraveling after just a few months. According to a report by McKinsey and Co., data shows women and men left their companies at similar rates before the pandemic. However, the study found that, since March of this year, mothers have been three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for a majority of housework and child care during COVID-19. And that is in addition to their professional work. This has led many working mothers to feel overwhelmed and burned out.

We must act at this critical moment to ensure that women do not fall further behind. I don’t want to look back years down the road and have to explain to my daughter that in this moment we were not able to figure out how to help working mothers and, as a result, quickly lost many of the gains previous generations had made.  

The Kentucky Chamber has long advocated for quality child care, and this has never been more important than it is right now. As our economy and businesses work to reopen safely, it is critical we continue to provide support for our child care facilities. We also must be responsible, wear masks and do everything in our power to keep Kentuckians safe so children can return to in-person learning.  

 Lastly, we need to do a better job at promoting, supporting, mentoring and understanding the pressures working mothers are all juggling — even after life returns to “normal.”

Women have worked hard to achieve a life balance, and workplaces are better for it. Let’s pledge not to treat women leaving the workforce as just another side effect of the pandemic, but as the crisis that it is – one that demands immediate attention.

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