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Editor's note: This story is the second installment of KSL.com's "Utah Women" series, in which we profile individuals and examine issues facing women in the Beehive State in honor of Women's History Month.
SALT LAKE CITY — Robbyn Scribner was used to working from home, even before the pandemic. But in March, everything changed.
With schools and colleges dismissing in-person instruction, all of her children and even a nephew lived in her home full-time. With nine people now sharing a working, living and educational space along with bandwidth and laptops, things got crowded quickly. Needless to say, it was difficult to navigate in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with the family's resources and Scribner's understanding job, it was still difficult to manage a household of seven children, ranging from elementary to college-aged — she can't imagine trying to navigate the frenzy if her job hadn't been flexible or if she had been without the help of her husband. Even with a husband, she noted, a lot of the parenting defaulted to her — to make sure her young children actually completed their online school assignments
Scribner considers herself extremely lucky and privileged that she already had a job that had flexible hours and location.
Others haven't been so lucky. One in four women has considered switching to part-time work or leave the workforce altogether due to a lack of flexibility at work, take on extra caregiving duties or feel like they always need to be working since they are home, according to a February report from McKinsey and Company.
About 80% of the 1.1 million workers who left the labor force in September were women, according to the National Women's Law Center. Of the 865,000 women who left work, 324,000 were Latina and 58,000 were Black.
The inequitable impact on women has been dubbed the pink recession.
Understanding the pink recession
"The pink recession just means that it's so much more exaggerated with women; women have taken really a disproportionate hit," explained Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project.
With women leaving the workforce in such great numbers, many are worried about what the future holds if they never come back, including Scribner. Data shows that women's participation in the workforce is at an all-time low in recent years, mirroring figures last seen in the 1980s.
In the age of COVID-19, child care has not only defaulted to women but caring for parents or grandparents as well. A total of 61% of caregivers in the U.S. are women, according to a 2020 report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. In 2020, the number of caregivers who reported their health had suffered and who were responsible for caring for more than one person had increased from 2015.
To better understand the pink recession in Utah, Madsen did a study on the topic and partnered with a number of groups in an attempt to reach pretty much every population of women in the state, including an effort to hear from women experiencing homelessness.
The goal was to reach 2,000 respondents but more than 3,600 women ended up participating in the study.
The preliminary data from the research mirrored trends reported before, Madsen said — educated women suffered less of an impact from the pandemic than non-educated and lower-income women, and Latina women experienced more COVID-19 related concerns when compared to white respondents.
"Women of color are even more vulnerable than white women, even though white women have had quite a hit, too," Madsen explained.
Data has shown across the board that the pink recession hasn't just impacted women economically, but also created mental health issues.
"This past year has been crazy for everybody's mental health," Scribner agreed.
How to recover
So what would happen to the years of progress in getting women in leadership roles if they can't recover?
"When we lose those voices, we risk going back to the way that it was and having to start from scratch, which is ridiculous — we know better than that," Scribner said.
The easiest way to solve this problem going forward is to first, hire women, Scriber said; and secondly, remove the roadblocks women face re-entering the workforce after taking time off to raise families or to deal with a pandemic. It will take a lot of different stakeholders to accomplish this goal, including policymakers, but companies have the opportunity to lead the way forward, she said.
"We need companies to take a really close look at what has happened this year — what has happened to women's careers and ensure that they do not penalize women who have needed to take a break, who have needed to step out, who have needed to downshift their careers during this year," Scribner said. "Companies need to be super proactive in inviting back and welcoming back the women who have needed to step back during this year of the pandemic."
Re-entering the workforce or changing careers as a mother can be difficult. Potential employers question resume gaps and some candidates might not consider serving on the PTA as valid experience — although they should, Scribner said. Empowering women to recognize the valuable skills they've had over the years, whether from child care or volunteering, is a good way to encourage them to pursue a career if they want one.
And on the reverse side, employers should be open to accepting resume gaps and recognize church and school positions as relevant experience to jobs, she said. Making it easier for women and mothers to join the workforce is only part of the equation — employers should try to offer flexible benefits to workers, like remote working options and flexible hours.
"For so many families, having that dual-income family is the only way to survive. And for many, many women, it is what they want to be doing; they have aspirations, they have things that they love to do," Scribner said. "They want to have their careers, but we need better infrastructure to support working families."
The benefits of flexible work policies aren't just for the worker, though. According to a 2020 study by the Utah Women and Leadership Project, implementing these best practices for flexible work helped the business side of things as well.
A majority of companies that offered flexible and family-friendly policies saw higher employee satisfaction, increased employee retention, engagement and productivity, and more diverse teams. A little over 30% of respondents reported increased profitability as well; however, the adjustments still came with some challenges for companies. About 60% of respondents reported employees feeling disconnected and feeling a loss of office culture. But a staggering 94% said employee satisfaction had improved thanks to the changes.
Child care support was an uncommon benefit provided by companies surveyed but remains one of the largest barriers to women succeeding in the workforce, the report noted.
But it's not just up to companies. Scribner said it's also important for men to step up and realize how they can help address the inequities and disparities women face in the workforce and at home as well.
"I hope that this pandemic has opened up greater conversations between those who are lucky enough to be raising their families with a partner to say, 'How can we do a better job of sharing the responsibilities for our whole life,'" Scribner said. "There are things that men and women both value, right? Dads want to be involved in their kids' lives, but it's been too easy for them to not be involved as much as they need to. So I hope those conversations are happening at home."
Scribner recently launched a new program called Tech Moms, which launched this fall. It's an in-person class that helps women transition into technical careers.
She's seen women from retail, education, the food industry, and health care join the course in an effort to break into the tech industry. The program, sponsored by the organization Rize Next, is also looking to launch a cohort for Latina mothers and an online class for those unable to attend in person.
"One of the main reasons why women have been coming to us over this last year to come to our program is that women are so interested in having more flexibility at their work," Scribner said.
As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic simply exacerbated many issues that already existed, both Madsen and Scribner agreed.
When things really do go back to normal after COVID-19, Scribner and Madsen both hope one thing doesn't return to normal: the oftentimes invisible but heavy burden disproportionately placed on women.
"Women have been doing far too much for far too long, and it took a pandemic to expose the extraordinary burdens that women were feeling," Scribner said. "It was just completely unsustainable anymore."