When the pandemic struck, guest columnist Darcy Totten asked herself: Women are essential to making the state economy work, but how are we going to make California’s economy work for women? (Shutterstock image)

How to make the fourth largest economy in the world work for women

Women Are Essential to the State Economy

Back Article Mar 30, 2023 By Darcy Totten

Darcy Totten is the director of communications for the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. She served as the primary author of the California Women’s Economic Blueprint for Pandemic Recovery.

As a communications expert with a focus on crisis management and response, I am often approached for advice on how to respond to challenges that can feel beyond our individual control, such as an economic crisis or how to work locally towards gender equity. There’s no better time to shake things up or try a new approach than when things are already upside down. When the pandemic struck, the question for me was clear: Women are essential to making the state economy work, but how are we going to make California’s economy work for women?

As the crisis continued, the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls advocated for an immediate response. It invested in women-specific research and produced the California Blueprint for Women’s Pandemic Economic Recovery, which I am proud to have co-authored. The Blueprint centers the economic needs of women and girls as critical to the state’s economic recovery and adopts, for the first time, a gendered lens on the state economy, recognizing women as key drivers of industry and key workforce participants. 

Here is some of what we learned:

We must end the wage gap

The pandemic added an estimated 36 years to the time it will take for women to make the same amount as men, bringing the total to 135 years. In California, if all working women and working single mothers earned the same as men in comparable roles, the state’s poverty rate for working women would be reduced by about 40 percent!  

Occupational segregation has a direct correlation to gender and racial wage gaps and leaves women, especially women of color, with lower wages and reduced lifetime earnings as compared to their male counterparts. As women are funneled into low wage positions, or are provided no meaningful advancement opportunity, they are more vulnerable to the impact of major life events, economic downturns, and unexpected crises. 

I was proud to support the work of the Commission and Commissioner Senator Monique Limon in passing SB1162 last year, which expands the rights of all workers and increases transparency with regard to compensation. Small business owners with fewer than 15 employees are not required to but can voluntarily join larger companies as part of this effort by posting the salary in the job description of all open positions. 

This goes a long way to leveling the playing field for women, especially over time. When women at the start of their careers enter the workforce at lower salaries, the effects are cumulative over a lifetime including retirement. By ensuring that all applicants know the pay range to begin with, the guesswork is removed from the process of achieving equitable salaries.

We have to talk about long COVID-19

Many people don’t know that women face an elevated risk of long COVID-19. It not only presents as a major health concern, but also an economic one. Our research illustrates that there are roughly 257,000 full-time equivalent workers out of the California workforce due to long COVID-19. This amounts to roughly $17.61 billion in annual lost earnings, which amounts to roughly half a percent of the total state economy (0.49 percent). While long COVID-19 is accepted under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is still new, and presents a variety of challenges for those suffering and for business owners.

Businesses can voluntarily help to keep their workers healthy by embracing things like flexibility and telework, particularly when employees are sick. Normalizing mask wearing and ensuring that the air in buildings is properly filtered can also help keep everyone safe from the airborne virus during the ongoing pandemic. By becoming more flexible in our conception of what a workplace can look like and how teams can work together, and embracing the use of digital technology for connection and collaboration, business can lead the way to a thriving economy and a
well workplace.

We must value caregiving

COVID-19 shutdowns drastically shifted the burdens of caregiving to the home, specifically on the shoulders of women. Jobs in paid-care fields have historically been low wage, and 92 percent of these workers are women. The recovery of the economy, and the workforce participation of women in general, is contingent upon ensuring proper staffing for formal facilities and proper support for informal care networks that can appropriately care for not only children, but elderly and ailing adults, the numbers of which are expected to increase significantly over the next decade. This crisis showed us where the next one will hit us — and how. It’s up to us now to make decisions that can prevent us from reliving the impacts we just collectively experienced. 

Employers can help by offering flexible hours, robust paid leave practices, or even on-site daycare in offices. Businesses that help to alleviate the burden of caregiving employees may find that they greatly increase the productivity and capacity of their employees currently struggling to manage this second full-time job. 

Recovery is a start — but we could have a renaissance

Frontline and service sectors, who we called “essential workers,” were the most impacted by the pandemic. In many of these sectors women are occupationally segregated, making up in some cases more than 70 percent of a particular industry’s workforce. It is critical to understand that it is not just certain professions or service workers that we lauded as essential — it was women who dominate those sectors as employees. 

As California’s economy recovers, long COVID-19 coupled with workplace bias, wage gaps and the disproportionate impact of inflation and debt will hold back recovery for nearly half of the state’s workforce without significant intervention. But we can do hard things.

We must recognize that women are essential to the economy. We are not a special interest group — we are half of the population and half of the workforce that creates the conditions in which industry can thrive. By investing in women’s education, advancement, leadership and innovation, we invest in the future of business.

Darcy Totten joined the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls in 2019 as the Director of Communications. She served as the primary author of the California Women’s Economic Blueprint for Pandemic Recovery and developed the CCSWG #WomenAreEssential campaign effort centered on women’s economic recovery. 

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