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Workforce Woes

Women have been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic

Back Q&A Oct 16, 2020 By Jennifer Fergesen

Amanda Blackwood is president and CEO of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. (Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce)

Though the job market has inched slowly upward since it bottomed out in March, recent reports show that gains are far from equal. In September, as many schools started online or hybrid instruction, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce — meaning that they are neither working nor looking for work. That’s four times the number of men who left the workforce in the same period. 

This discrepancy could have dire consequences for women’s careers and the economy at large, says Amanda Blackwood, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. As the first full-time female leader of the 125-year-old organization, Blackwood has placed a priority on extending women’s access to capital and business opportunities during her two years in the role. 

Comstock’s spoke with Blackwood about the challenges currently facing women in the workforce, especially mothers, and how employers and policymakers can help lighten their load.  

In September, women made up 80 percent of the people who dropped out of the workforce. Why do you think women are leaving the workforce at such high rates right now?

As women, we are often the caretaker, and as working women, you’re still in that role. … We’ve got working moms at home navigating remote learning, and we’re the caretaker in general. … LeanIn also did a major report in May. … They interviewed 3,000 working women, all people that had a partner and had children at home. … They were working a 40-hour workweek, plus an average of seven hours a week for child care, seven hours a week for keeping the household and the family together, and an additional six hours a week on … caring for extended family. 

So for white women, that was essentially a 40-hour workweek plus a part-time job. And if you break the data down even further … our Latina community (had), ostensibly, another 40 hours on top of your 40 hours. … It just goes to show that, yes, we’re in the workforce, and that’s great. But all of that child rearing and multigenerational family caring and all of that doesn’t just go away. And then in the time of COVID, you’re just trying to hold everything together.

What are some of the biggest needs that are keeping women from staying in the workforce?

The need for child care is very real. … The data would show you that the expectation of child care, shopping, laundry, keeping the house — all of that still falls on women’s shoulders, regardless if you are or are not in the workforce. … That lack of reliable care in the day, it precludes you from working when you’ve got young kids at home. … When we want women to be able to be active in our workforce, you have to address that need. …

You also find, from the investment side of the house, that (for) a lot of women (who) are also trying to run their own small business … the access to capital, the access to investor financing for women-owned businesses, is far less than it is for male-owned businesses. (It’s) even more striking when you look at women of color. For instance, Black women are the most likely to be entrepreneurial and start their own business. They are also the least likely to receive any kind of outside investment. … It just goes to show you that there’s an incredible amount of gender bias, unconscious bias, in our employment practices, as well as (in) our lending institutions. 

What impact will the drop in women in the workforce have on businesses and the economy?

There was a recent study that said, globally, women out of the workforce (due to the coronavirus may cause) an estimated $1 trillion of loss for global GDP, because they’re at home, and they’re not spending money, and they’re not earning money. … Women generally make the buying decisions in a household, so you need that to happen. …

Not having diversity of leadership and diversity of voice makes companies less effective. All the data would show you that the more diverse your board, your leadership, your decision-makers, the better a company performs. Just having women out of those roles right now has a material effect on those companies making well-rounded decisions, particularly when the majority of your clientele are female. … Everything that we could do to get that engine back on track as quickly as possible is a huge step in us recovering from what we’re experiencing now.

What can employers do to make it easier for their female employees to continue working?

The best advice I would give (is on) two fronts. One, please come from a place of empathy and understanding, and know that that employee is probably doing their very best. They are dealing with all of those things we just talked about at the homefront. So when they are present, have an understanding, as a human being, that we’re carrying a really heavy load. And please come from a place of empathy and understanding as you’re navigating the culture of your team. All of our data would show us the culture of a team directly impacts the productivity of that team. … If you want efficient, continuous, consistent production out of a team, focus on culture, focus on creating that safe space. 

The second, more practical matter, is (that) people have been wanting and been trending into this kind of hybrid work-from-home scenario over the last few years, particularly when you see your younger generation of the workforce. What they’re looking for in an employer is culture. They’re looking for somebody who aligns with their values, and they’re looking for the flexibility to live their life the way that they want. This is very true for women as well. … Maybe you go into the office Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Monday, Wednesday, Friday you can work from home, you can get your other stuff done, you can keep your household running. That really traditional ideal of nine-to-five … is not the most effective way to run a team. And COVID showed us out of necessity that … you can operate in a remote environment, if the nature of your industry allows for that. …

COVID has shaken our perception of what is possible on telecommuting, on hybrid models, and let’s not lose sight of that. Look at what your teams have been able to do during this time, and as you go back to whatever your new normal is going to be, embrace those creative ideas, embrace those flexible work hours. … If the nature of your work allows for that kind of flexibility and schedule, you’re going to be able to retain and attract very talented workers who are looking for that, and particularly working moms. 

What is the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce doing to support working women at the local and state level?

We run the Capital Region Small Business Development Center. It is run by two very strong women of color (who) put a very finite focus on creating opportunities for women entrepreneurs to get into starting their own business, to grow their own business, and to have direct access to capital, primarily through the (Small Business Administration). We also work with two local lenders, with Five Star Bank and with (SAFE Credit Union), to overcome the hurdles that exist in institutional financing so that women can get their ideas funded and bring them to scale. … 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know, especially women who are currently struggling with these issues?

If you’re trying to make these decisions, know that you’re not alone. The SBDC that I referenced earlier, it’s absolutely free. It’s no cost to anybody. You don’t have to be members of the chamber. … If you are feeling like, man, I really wish I had someone to talk to to bounce an idea off of; I don’t know how to fill out this PPP (loan application); I don’t know how to do my insurance … any of those questions that may be on your mind, please reach out to the Small Business Development Center. … 

I always like to tell people, the mental health aspect of what you’re going through is very real. You’re trying to make business decisions, while, as a human being, you are holding a lot right now. So if you are feeling alone, reach out, get help, talk to people. … That’s what we’re all here for.

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