Looking to the Future of Working Women After One Year of COVID

As Women’s History Month 2021 ends, let’s discuss women’s futures. We devote the month of March to honoring the accomplishments of women around the world. Many of them took big risks and suffered many setbacks on the way to achieving greatness. Over the centuries, women have gained the right to vote, taken on a major role in the workforce and become world leaders, but none of those were easy accomplishments — and there is still progress to be made.

I recently read a troubling statistic from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that employers cut 140,000 jobs in December 2020 as the US economy struggled to fully recover from the impacts of the coronavirus. Even more troubling was how that figure broke down – women lost 156,000 jobs while men gained 16,000 jobs overall, and the brunt of that has been felt by women in minority groups. In early 2020, prior to the coronavirus shut-downs, women held roughly half of all jobs in the US, but a report from Fortune noted that “working women have now lost more than three decades of labor force gains in less than a year.” These statistics highlight challenging choices that many women have faced over the past year, and even before that.

Women who have been able to work during this time have not had it easy either. A newly released Deloitte study of women working in professional roles found “the number of women who say they are responsible for 75% or more of caregiving responsibilities (e.g. childcare or care of other family members) has nearly tripled to 48% during the pandemic compared to their caring responsibilities prior to COVID-19.” Women without caregiving responsibilities also felt a need to be always available and felt that not doing so could hurt their careers.

I have seen this play out in my own life and career. After having a baby in 2019 with major health challenges, I felt I wouldn’t be able to give him the attention he needed while staying in my demanding consulting role. Before that, I was the main breadwinner in my family so the choice wasn’t easy, but my husband’s job was flexible enough that it felt like the right choice for us. We also had quite a bit of financial privilege from spending many years together as DINKs (Dual-Income, No Kids) before our son was born.

Just as his health was looking up and I was looking to get back into work, the virus hit and that progress stalled. After a few months, I started working part time (during nap-times). When I decided I wanted to add an extra workday in 2021, my husband and I agreed that he would work four days a week instead of five to make that happen. His employer, a small family-owned business, has been incredibly understanding and accommodating of this temporary change. It’s still a challenge fitting everything in — like negotiating baby swaps for meetings that don’t fall during nap hours or on my one dedicated workday – all while trying to nurture a toddler with some special needs. Like everyone else these days, we’re making it work.

For those women and families without the privilege and luck that we had, what does the future hold? We have to claw back the three decades of progress that we lost, and make sure that those women most significantly impacted gain back even more.

What about actuaries? As a profession, we may not be feeling as much pain as people in other industries, and we have had milestones of our own even in this challenging year. This year we saw women elected to leadership roles in several actuarial organizations, including the CAS. Yet, many are surprised to learn that women still make up only 31% of CAS members, and progress has stalled in the last decade, according to the Spotlight on Diversity 2020 infographics released by the CAS this year. The CAS has set ambitious goals for women to make up 50% of new members in 2031-2035.

Now is our chance to look towards our future – employers can take the opportunity to make cultural and policy changes to encourage and enable employees of all genders to balance work and home responsibilities effectively and still progress in their careers. We all can do more to support young women pursuing analytical professions and get them excited about what the actuarial profession has in store. The energy I see among CAS members for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts gives me optimism that we can turn this one step back into a giant leap forward.

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