The pandemic threat to female leadership
Michele Barry, Geeta Rao Gupta
One in four. That’s the proportion of American women who are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to the impact of Covid-19. In just one year, the pandemic has driven more than two million women in the United States out of the workplace, resulting in the largest male-female unemployment gap in two decades.
Working mothers, more than 40 percent of whom are their family’s primary breadwinner, have been especially hit hard. Many simply are unable to balance their careers with overwhelming increases in household responsibilities at home. This mirrors similar trends globally—across all regions, women lost jobs at a greater rate than men in 2020, as they took on an average of 30 more hours of childcare per week.
Covid-19 is causing women to leave the workforce in droves just when we urgently need to elevate more of them into leadership positions across sectors, including in our own field of global health. Without women’s expertise, leadership talents, and unique perspectives, the road to recovery could be far longer, and we risk being underprepared for the next health crisis, particularly given the pandemic’s clear gendered effects.
And having women in leadership positions has been shown to result in more policies that improve people’s quality of life and reflect the priorities of families and marginalised communities—the very groups disproportionately affected by this pandemic. In global health, women’s voices are crucial to driving intentional, holistic action on important challenges that too often are missed when the vast majority of decision-makers are men.
When women are not at the table, the consequences are serious. This pandemic has led to increases in domestic violence and suspensions or delays in sexual and reproductive health services, often leaving unprepared governments struggling to respond. For too long, we lacked sex-disaggregated data, including on how both Covid-19 infection and vaccination affect pregnant women, simply because researchers do not routinely investigate these questions. We will continue to struggle with these and other issues unless women are better represented in decision-making.
But as we rebuild from the devastation of Covid-19, we have an opportunity to embrace new and better ways of working so that parents do not have to choose between their careers and their family responsibilities—and so that women can thrive and lead. In global health, like in other fields, this starts with acknowledging and breaking down barriers and urging those in positions of power to embrace the necessary changes in policies, allocation of resources, and cultural norms.
For starters, we must make our workplaces more family-friendly through measures such as flexible schedules, subsidised childcare, and family leave. We must also dismantle the sexist biases that hold back women in their careers, including false, negative assumptions about mothers that have adverse implications in hiring and promotion decisions.
Furthermore, we need to recognise that pandemic-related challenges have not affected all women equally. In the US, like in many other countries, women who already face additional hurdles—whether because they are black, Hispanic, or unpartnered mothers—have shouldered an even heavier load. We must advocate for policies that can correct this imbalance. In particular, such policies should include universal childcare, which helps address inequalities faced by marginalised women.
Women should not have to sacrifice their health, work or leadership potential in the pursuit of the mythical “work-life balance.” The best leadership we can muster—drawing from all humankind, and not just 50 percent of it—is needed to improve health outcomes and the well-being of people around the world.
Millions of women have already left the workforce during this pandemic, and many more are thinking of doing so. If we do not act now to reverse this trend, the gap may become insurmountable. We cannot afford to lose the very people who will help lead us out of this health emergency and future ones, too.
Michele Barry, Founder of WomenLift Health, is Chair of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health and a professor of medicine and tropical diseases at Stanford University. Geeta Rao Gupta, Global Advisory Board Chair of WomenLift Health, is a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation.