Photo courtesy Rep. Laurie Pohutsky. Photo courtesy Rep. Laurie Pohutsky.

The sharp decline of women in the workforce caused by the pandemic may have lasting damage on women’s careers. That could set workplace equity back unless decisive action is taken.

LIVONIA, Mich.—Until recently, when women left a job they did so with another job lined up. But since the pandemic began, women have been leaving the workforce entirely due to a need to provide care for loved ones. 

“It’s a huge impact on women, especially for the professionals with younger children at home,” Cathy Liesman told Bridge. “They struggle with that constant feeling that they’re not doing enough for their clients and they’re not doing enough for their families.”

Liesman is CEO of Development Centers, a Detroit-based business where the vast majority of staff identify as women, and those women are falling out of the workforce entirely. That’s a problem for women, but it’s also a problem for Liesman who struggles to replace the experienced workers she’s losing to keep Development’s programs like behavioral therapy and employment assistance running smoothly.

READ MORE: Biden’s COVID Relief Plan Is a Huge Deal for Women. Here’s How.

The way women are impacted especially badly by the coronavirus recession has led to it being called a “shecession.” And the implications of women feeling an obligation to leave the workforce and become full-time caregivers may set the broader movement of workplace equity back by a generation.

The Scale of the Shecession

Professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Women in Work index found that to get workplace gender equity back on track by 2030, the progress toward that equity needs to proceed at twice it’s historical pace.  

Michigan legislators are keenly aware of the problem, and state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) is working on finding solutions to bring women back to work.  

“The Progressive Women’s Caucus, I chair that here, we’re working on a pretty large package around women in the workforce,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander. “We know that female-identifying people were hit the hardest when it came to COVID and job loss and are still struggling.”

She said that while things like child care have always fallen disproportionately on women, the pandemic worsened that disparity and drew significant attention to just how badly those societal expectations have hurt women’s opportunities to be successful. Which, in turn, lowers overall economic productivity by reducing the talent pool from which industry can draw.

What’s Keeping Women Out of the Workforce?

According to United Nations data, women spent about six more hours a week than men on unpaid child care before the pandemic. But since the coronavirus, that number has soared to nearly eight more hours a week. Women today spend over 31 hours a week as unpaid care providers on average, enough to be considered a second (or third) job.

If that extra burden lasts, women may be pressed into staying out of the workforce long-term. And even if it doesn’t, career breaks are shown to do significantly more damage to potential success of women workers as compared to men. 

So addressing that burden of care has to be a top priority to set things back on track and heal the shecession, Pohutsky says. And it isn’t just child care that’s placing disproportionate burdens on women.

“A lot of people fall into that sandwich generation where they’re also caring for parents, in-laws, things like that,” she said. 

SEE ALSO: This State Senator Gave Birth While in Office, During COVID. Here’s What She Learned.

As a result, she plans to tackle issues like easing access to the caring economy for Michiganders, a goal shared by President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan.

But as PricewaterhouseCoopers found, it’ll take more than just getting women back to work to undo the damage the shecession has done to women workers. And Pohutsky’s package has plans in mind for accelerating a return to the path of equity as well.

“We have a large pay equity package, but there are also some bills that deal with pay transparency, actions that can be taken against an employer if there’s not pay equity,” Pohutsky explained. 

Pohutsky also mentioned that Rep. Kara Hope (D-Lansing) is working on a Reproductive Health Care Information Act that may or may not be part of the Progressive Women’s Caucus package. Hope’s legislation would require employers to be upfront about reproductive health services that are and are not covered under their employer-provided health insurance. 

“[We’re] making sure women and female-identifying people are well equipped to be equals in the workforce, essentially,” said Pohutsky.