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Major world events like pandemics or climate disasters take too many lives, shatter families, take homes, and wipe out entire industries. And each one has potential to obliterate the progress women have made in the workplace over the last one hundred years.
The percentage of women in the workforce right now is the lowest it has been since 1988. Nearly 2.2 million women left the workforce between February and October and right now 1 in 4 women are considering leaving their jobs.
However, there was a women-and-workplace problem long before today, and particularly in science and technology careers. One important study from the Center on Gender at UCSD found that after 4-7 years, 43% left their STEM jobs, versus 23 percent of new fathers dropping out. Sadly, women in certain areas of STEM are more likely to face workplace inequities. Even more startling, a study this year found that half of women working in the technology industry leave by the time they are 35 years old.
The reasons behind this are much too complex, multi-layered and intertwined with historic societal inequities to detail in this article, but I can say something about what we as a society can do about it right now. Having worked in the tech industry for over 20 years, I believe that it’s our industry’s responsibility to help support working mothers during this and future chaotic time periods.
Companies must act radically and quickly; they must step in and do everything in their power to help women who are struggling to balance work and their family lives. That would mean helping in the areas where they are most struggling: home and household management, physical and mental health, child care and other caregiver support, and long term career support.
Here’s how to do that.
1. Help them leave… as in, maternity leave
This is a no-brainer. Career support has been a focus of many companies in the tech sector, but women need to be lifted up by their workplaces during times of crisis more than ever. This would look like providing excellent maternity leave options that give the mother the time needed to bond with her baby and establish a routine at home during the pandemic. Google, for example, has an especially generous option: They offer 22-24 weeks for moms and 7 weeks for dads, when the average length of leave for women in the U.S. is just 10 weeks.
2. Help them come back
Bringing women back into the workforce after a career break is also critical during times of crisis. Programs like PayPal’s ‘Recharge’ and Path Forward help support women who have left and want to come back into the workplace. These go a long way in helping “comeback moms” create a career path they love, but programs like these will be particularly relevant and helpful after global and local disasters.
3. Help them with their kids
Another area where companies can do more right now is with child care options. In-home child care is imperative during times of global instability or pandemics. Some companies have already added child care benefits like paying for care.com to find child care or may even consider tools like CareAcademy, which offer training to care for homebound or ill grandparents.
4. Help them at home
Helping families in their actual households is also critical if companies want to help women employees stay in the workplace. In living rooms across the nation, and world even, families are hunkering down together for 24 hours of the day. It was difficult enough to manage things like the dishes, cleaning up, keeping the refrigerator stocked, staying on top of laundry and getting dinner on the table, while watching the kids. Throw in online schooling and working from home, and you can see how parents’ lives are turned upside down by global disasters. Moms are affected the most because, given ingrained gender roles, they bear the brunt of the housework. During this pandemic, women did even more housework.
Corporations, and particularly tech companies, did things like canceling performance reviews, creating special “parenting” Slack support channels, and allowing schedule flexibility for working mothers.
But this is not enough. Companies need to show radical support for working moms in times of global instability, pandemics, and climate disasters, now and in the future. I am hopeful that by the time my daughter is an adult, these benefits will be standard features of the workplace that she can easily use with her own family.
Related: The Motherhood Recession