Economists have been sounding the alarm about a shecession for nearly a year. (The term was used by C. Nicole Mason of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in a May 2020 New York Times article to describe the economic downturn’s disproportionate effect on working women.) Alas, little progress has been made in addressing the troubling numbers.
Women’s participation in the economy is at its lowest in nearly 35 years. This past September, four times more women than men left the workforce. The pandemic is decimating jobs, and industries that are dominated by women are disproportionately affected as many women leave the workforce to fill family care needs. Reversing these losses at scale and for the long term will require serious conversations among lawmakers and employers.
But as the U.S. economy starts to show signs of recovery, there are steps women can take to get back to work, or to keep their current jobs. I recently spoke to several women leaders who offered advice to women navigating the new world of work (and family).
Life is not binary
Negotiating begins at home. Many women, especially moms, find themselves assuming the classic gender roles in the home, taking on more of the household and child care duties even when employed. All too often, this contributes to women being underemployed. Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, former CEO of StubHub and founder and chairman of theBoardlist, advocates negotiating inside and outside the home. If you are thinking about leaving the workforce because nonwork obligations are interfering, consider whether there is an alternative to leaving entirely.
“People presume everything is binary,” says Cassidy, who wrote an upcoming book about taking calculated risks. Negotiate with your spouse or partner first. Create an environment at home that enables you to succeed outside the home. Once you have that conversation, the next step is to do the same with your boss. “Women leave the workforce because they feel they have no other choice,” she says. “Before you leave, take one very hard shot at negotiating everything at work. As opposed to leaving, ask for a one-year sabbatical. Ask for shorter days or a shorter workweek. Know what you want. If you’re great at what you do, the cost of losing you is quite high.”
Be ready to sell yourself
At the end of the day, you still must be persuasive and clearly communicate why you are the best fit for a position.
“You have to make the compelling point honestly that you are just as qualified, if not more, for this particular role,” says Sarah Hofstetter, president of e-commerce platform Profitero. “And if you can’t convince them through honesty, then you shouldn’t be there. And if they aren’t going to accept it through honesty, then that’s not the culture you want.”
Hofstetter recommends that candidates consider repackaging their skills and learning some new ones. “If you ran the school’s parent-teacher organization, you are skilled at business development, project management, inspiring and influencing others, and multitasking—just be transparent that you did it for the PTO.”
If your tech skills are rusty or you feel underqualified, find an online class or a volunteer position that can keep you current. Do it today. It is more powerful to say you learned Excel tips, tricks, and pivot tables than to say you plan to take a class.
Did you take off five years to care for a child or family member? Or maybe you lost your job and never found the perfect position. It may seem daunting, but you must share your story with confidence and tell employers why you are driven to return to work.
“Take control of the conversation,” says Linda Holliday, founder of Citia, a digital, multi-channel publishing tool. “My philosophy is don’t let them ‘think it’ about you, address the gap straight on. It takes the power out of it.” If there are any gaps, “talk about the gap and tell them how you’ll crush it. And let them know that no one wants to come back to work more than you do.”
Prepare for the worst but hope for the best
“Do not tell yourself the story that no one’s ever going to want you because you have this gap in your résumé,” says Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward. “It isn’t that there isn’t discrimination, but if you focus on that, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Forman helps women address this very issue every day at Path Forward, where she creates “returnships” for women wanting to restart their careers and guides them toward rejoining the workforce.
“If you think in increments, more is possible,” theBoardlist’s Cassidy encourages. Don’t feel like you can take a full-time job? No problem. Finally give that side-hustle idea a real shot. Launch an Etsy store and sell those handmade Christmas ornaments you make that all the neighbors want to buy. Two things can happen: Your online store succeeds, or you have the greatest story to tell at your next interview.
Lisa Mann is managing director and chief marketing officer at Raines International, an executive search and leadership consulting firm.