How COVID-19 Fueled the First Female Recession

Audio Description

The pandemic is threatening to roll back the clock on decades of gains women have made in the workplace—collateral damage as women remain disproportionately impacted by the economic crisis. Cherita Ellens, President and CEO of Women Employed, takes us behind the staggering statistics, exploring systemic inequities and why this presents an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up.


00:05 - 00:36

Welcome to Women and Wealth, I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head at investment Strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Well, hello, everybody, I'm excited to be here today at the end of September with Cherita Ellens, who is the CEO of Women Employed. Women Employed is a terrific nonprofit organization based here in Chicago. I'm maybe a little bit biased because I am on the board.

00:36 - 01:11

But I'm really excited to be here with Cherita today as a leader and a visionary in the aspects of giving back to women in the nonprofit world. She spent almost two decades in various non-profits throughout Chicago and in 2019 came on to Women Employed as the CEO. And I really wanted to sit down with Cherita today to talk about the unique aspects of this recession, how it's impacted women, women of color, and really look at the situation that we're in through the lens of gender and this experience.

01:11 - 01:17

So thank you so much, Cherita, for joining me today and making time. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

01:17 - 01:52

So can you give our listeners a little bit more background on Women Employed before we start to talk about what you're observing in the economic environment today? Yeah, I'm going to do this real quick so that we can have as much time as we can for the important discussion that we have. So Women Employed has been pursuing equity for women since 1973. And our mission is to improve the economic status of women and remove barriers to economic equity. And we do that by affecting policy change and making improvements to the system. Makes sense!

01:52 - 02:13

And it makes sense that I'm having you here today to talk about the gender lens through which we've experienced this recession and this very unique and unfortunate circumstance we find ourselves in really around the globe. I was really interested in having this conversation not only to talk about women's experience during this recession, but also in speaking to our female clients.

02:14 - 02:34

We've heard a lot of interest in giving back to those most affected by this pandemic and, of course, the recession and again, giving back to women in that context. So the almost 50 years that Women Employed has been thinking about the dynamics of women in the workforce. We thought this would be a very relevant discussion for the moment.

02:34 - 02:46

Let's turn to that. OK, so I've already alluded to it, but let's just look at some of the facts. Let's hear your perspective on what's unique in this recession in terms of gender impact.

02:46 - 02:59

The most unique thing about this recession is that for the first time in the history of our country, women are the group that's being impacted the most by the recession because of the job and economic loss.

02:59 - 03:29

Since February 2020, women have lost over six million net jobs, accounting for 53 percent of the overall net job loss since the start of this crisis. And that's unfortunate because we believe that that will completely erase the decade of gains that we have experienced. And also the unemployment rate for women in August now matches the highest unemployment rate for women during the Great Recession.

03:30 - 03:51

We also know that according to a survey of US households, over 57 percent of women making less than $30,000 a year have lost income during the first month of the crisis. We're losing the jobs. We're losing our income. And the women that are losing the most income are the ones that really can't afford it.

03:51 - 04:21

Yeah, I would note that a number of those statistics focus on the disproportionate share in impact to women broadly. But also what we've seen really across the income spectrum is that women who are perhaps the breadwinners at the high end of the economic spectrum are also dropping out because of the burden of school and the lack of a structure in the home, really to manage a very difficult situation as we've seen.

04:21 - 04:47

I mean, we sit here about a month into the school year in Chicago where Chicago's city schools have been remote and suburban schools have, for the most part, been mixed, let's just say, in terms of their attendance. So it's a really difficult time, I'd say for women. Your stats really point to the lower end of the economic curve. And then I've also seen similar stats throughout the spectrum.

04:48 - 05:17

But let's talk about on the lower end of the economic curve, what's really unique about women's participation in the workforce and what you're seeing and hearing from the organizations that you work closely with. And I'm actually going to, I'm going to pull, if you don't mind me, I'm going to pull in both because I do think that while this pandemic is impacting women in low paid jobs and women of color more, I do think that women across the board, as I

05:17 - 05:48

alluded to in my earlier stats are also being impacted, so there is a rolling survey that's done by the Census Bureau since this pandemic started, and in July, the survey revealed, and I bet it's higher now, that close to 31 percent of women ages 25 to 44 with children at home are not working because of COVID-related child care issues. And that's compared to 11.6 percent of men. So that's a rate of three times as much.

05:48 - 06:07

And we know that women are twice as likely as men to be responsible for home schooling. And we know that with this virus, we've seen just a significant increase in the burden of unpaid child care or the unpaid care, which, of course, disproportionately are carried by women.

06:07 - 06:34

And then on the flip side of that, when you look at women that are in lower paid occupations, we know that women account for just under two-thirds of employment in leisure and hospitality, retail, education and health, which are the areas that accounted for 80 percent of the job losses between February and March. And also, many women are also vurnerable by virtue because they are working part time.

06:35 - 06:58

And so we know women hold 63 percent of all part time jobs, which of course are typically the first ones to be cut and they accounted for, while part time workers only account for 18 percent of the workforce in February, but they accounted for 46 percent of the new unemployment claims in March, again, because a reduction of hours, because of furloughs and things of that sort.

06:58 - 07:13

So while definitely we are seeing a disproportionate impact on women that are in low paid occupations and women of color, it's safe to say that women across the board are disproportionately being impacted by this crisis.

07:14 - 07:40

And that's an overwhelming list of statistics, it's kind of like choose your stat. All of the stats, whether it's reasons, whether it's rolling, whether it's, like you said, women of color or women on the low end of the economic spectrum or the high end, this is a big challenge to the progress that women have, really, I would say slowly made, but over a long period of time, definitely had made.

07:41 - 07:43

And so that's why we're here talking about it. Right.

07:43 - 08:10

So how do you think about this as an organization that's dedicated to equity and equality in the workplace? What do you see as the ways to help get us back? I like to be optimistic today in the fall of 2020. I like to look forward rather than look back and think on the other side of this. What can be done to get us back, because clearly the damage is here.

08:11 - 08:27

So now what? So I think one of the most positive things that came out of this, if there is anything that can come out that is positive, is the spotlight that has been shone on the inequities that exist.

08:27 - 08:55

So there are so many conversations that I'm involved in and that others are involved in where people are really trying to figure out how did we get here. We've been talking about pay inequity, paid sick time, and advancing gender in the workplace for 47 years. But now people are really seeing how the inequities really impact us as a society. Right.

08:56 - 09:21

It is just not a women's issue. It is a societal issue. It impacts our economy. It impacts our families. It impacts our communities. So we're in this moment, I think that of opportunity. And while we are experiencing severe discomfort, while this moment in time is painful for many of us, there's also this opportunity to fix it.

09:21 - 09:40

While we can continue to talk about it and we talk about solutions, we have this opportunity to fix the pervasive systemic racism, the inequities in access to jobs and opportunities and access to healthcare and resources and how those resources are being allocated.

09:40 - 10:16

So I do have some hope that this in this moment, we can use this momentum to push progress, and real progress, progress where we can change policies, where we can finally pass legislation that will create workplaces where women can not... where women can advance and not be in a situation where we have to make decisions between our family and our work so that hopefully we are in this opportunity where we can pass paid leave and pass

10:17 - 10:42

sick time opportunities, but also where employers are looking at the workforce and truly thinking about ways in which we can reimagine what work looks like and how we get it done and where we get it done. And when we get it done. And so all of those conversations are taking place. And I think that we are in this opportunity to finally change a system that was never built for us to begin with.

10:42 - 11:03

Right. And we're always in this situation where we're trying to fit square pegs into round holes. And we're finally in this place where we're like, forget the whole, let's build it over again and figure out how we create a more inclusive and more equitable space, economy, workplace that works for everyone.

11:03 - 11:31

Yeah. To your point, Women Employed has always been focused on policy change because the mission centers around the idea that if you change policy, you are affecting millions of lives and from the ground up, legislation in infrastructure and legislation in  policy do matter. The notion of not calling it maternity leave, but family leave and accepting that there's equality in child rearing and home schooling and house management.

11:31 - 11:49

And I would say it's interesting, I was interviewed for Bloomberg, was running in Equality Summit and interviewed a number of women on Wall Street a couple of weeks ago. And they asked senior women who have been around for a long time, what's the one thing that could be done to improve equality?

11:49 - 12:21

And I, I think I paused for five minutes before answering the question because I couldn't think of one thing. And to your point, listening to you list so many things, I think it is a societal change. But I did say this. I said that the fact that we have been working almost effectively 100 percent remote for six months, and speaking personally as somebody who traveled weekly, commuted daily, this is different, right? It feels different.

12:21 - 12:47

And I don't know that it's all or nothing, but I do know that corporations like ours who had not had a really, let's say, robust, flexible leave policy, not leave, we've had very robust benefits for leave, but not a large infrastructure of remote work, right, throughout thousands of employees has now shown it totally works. Right.

12:47 - 13:04

And there is a give-up, but it's it is a moment where I think crisis creates opportunity and focus. And what you've seen is corporations recognizing that and shifting the workplace norms.

13:04 - 13:25

And so that's what leaves me with hope that I think what's staggering and what's really challenging about the statistics you shared, Cherita, the most challenging is that women are a disproportionate share of the sectors that are the most affected: leisure, hospitality and child care. And you think about the situation in senior living communities and in hospitals.

13:25 - 13:44

And so these will be harder to recover from because unfortunately, it may be years that we're dealing with this legacy. But I do have hope that in the broad corporate environment, we find ourselves at a time where there's opportunity that's being created from crisis.

13:44 - 14:11

And our care structure system in this country has been lacking for decades. And this is something that we were going to have to fix anyway, because with the aging population that we have, many of us, many of us that are currently working are going to be faced with, if we're not caring for our children, we're going to be caring for our parents. It's the same care system. It's the same set of workers. Right.

14:11 - 14:36

So as a society, we were going to have to figure that out, how we're going to create a workplace where people could care for their loved ones and still be effective and contribute in the workplace every day. And that's not going to just fall on women. I know the burden disproportionately will fall on women, but we have to change our mindset around that.

14:36 - 14:50

I just saw an article and I don't remember, I think it was either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And they talked about how France just extended its maternity leave or paternity leave for 28 days.

14:50 - 15:12

And it's mandatory that the men have to take at least one or two weeks off. That, to me, highlights where they place their values. And so this is an opportunity for us. We talk about values all the time. This is an opportunity for us to align our policy and our workplace practices with what our values are as a society.

15:13 - 15:29

I tell you, the French, the wine, the cheese, the chateaus, paternity leave, travel.... They've got it right, you got me there, I am a hidden Francophile, lived there for a year and they definitely know how to live. So it's interesting that they use the France example.

15:29 - 16:02

Even the last question I'd have for you is so many of our clients asking, what can they do? We've gotten a lot of questions from clients about how to help. And obviously people are finding the means and the sources that fall amongst the passions that they wish to pursue, but especially our female listeners. Do you have any advice on how they can help really narrow the gap over time? Well, one, I think you have to, I always say, you know, you have to put your mask on first. You have to help yourself first.

16:03 - 16:32

You have to make sure that you are in a position where you are taking care of yourself mentally and financially. We know that women are almost three times as likely as men to report suffering of significant mental health consequences during the pandemic. So it's important that while we are taking care of everyone else in home schooling and trying to work and taking care of our parents, that we first pause and take care of ourselves.

16:32 - 16:46

So I'm always going to say that. And then, two, I think that this is an opportunity, I know that people always have their traditional places that they always give to. Is this an opportunity for you to venture into this?

16:46 - 17:17

Is this an opportunity for you to find those organizations that are serving women and girls and give to them? Or that are serving particular women of color or women in low paid occupations? We know that organizations that are led by women, organizations that are led by women of color, organizations that work to make changes for girls, they're getting 0.5 percent of the overall foundation funding out there.

17:17 - 17:49

It's an opportunity for you to kind of shift where you are putting your dollars to help those organizations that are in most need right now, knowing that we are going into this she-session and that women will need more support than ever. Well, thanks again, Cherita, for all your commentary and where we are at in the world and where organizations like Women Employed are doing the work to make sure we don't lose the progress that we've so carefully made over the decades.

17:49 - 17:56

But it wouldn't be a Women & Wealth episode if I didn't close with a question on your own relationship to money.

17:56 - 18:30

And since your whole career has effectively been about making money meaningful, I'm going to pivot to a different version of this question around funding your favorites and money lessons. So I'd love to ask you how you think about what you learned about money as a child and now as a mother, how you think about those lessons and translating them for your daughter. I love thinking about that question because it shows the uniqueness of my childhood. My father was born in 1936 and my mother was born in 1951.

18:30 - 18:47

So two different, really two different generations and definitely two different views on money. I always say that my father had the last penny, the first penny he ever earned. He was such a great saver. He didn't have a lot of vices.

18:47 - 19:07

He understood, you know, to pay, after church, pay yourself first, and save for that rainy day and take care of home. And my mother, who loved life and loved to live, believed that you made money so that you can enjoy life and was a little bit more loose with her money.

19:07 - 19:38

And I think I'm a hybrid between the two and understanding and respecting the dollar and being a single mom, understood how to make a dollar stretch. And as I pass lessons on to my daughter, I think I pass a little of it all. You definitely need to understand the value of saving and investing. You also need to understand how to pay you first and take care of yourself. But you also need to be able to live and enjoy life.

19:38 - 20:05

You work really hard every day and it's important that you think of those things that make you happy and be OK with spending the money on those things, whatever it is, and not have to be apologetic for it because you'll be a happier person for it. And that's, of course, after you've already been responsible and taken care of the things that you need to take care of. I hope that I am passing those things down on her.

20:05 - 20:26

But, you know, you can never tell these days. You never can,  whether... my daughter's 13, and your daughter is 21. Twenty one. So whether there are 3, 13 or 21, you never can tell, but you just keep trying. The life of the mother, right? You can never tell but she... a funny story.

20:26 - 20:35

My mom sent her money for her birthday and she's like, OK. So she came and asked me. She said, should I put half of it up?

20:35 - 21:02

Or, there's these pair of shoes that I've been wanting for really, really, really long time. Can I spend the money on the shoes? And I'm like, it's your birthday money, do you have to spend it all on shoes? She's like, No, I can still put some up. And then and then I really want these shoes, and I've been saving, she's working or whatever. And she's like, I've been saving money. I said, it's a gift. Buy the shoes, if you really want them, buy the shoes.

21:02 - 21:37

But I just thought that it was cute that she went through the, or good, that she went through the process of actually considering it and then asked for advice right. As for that counsel, I don't want to just make this decision myself. Let me seek out others to get their opinion and then I'll make a decision. And I think that that is just a good lesson in general, whether it's about shoes or about buying a house, is still the same process. Well, great job, Mom. Right. The work continues. So good job. And thanks again for joining us today, Cherita, was really a pleasure. Thank you, Beata. Thank you for having me.

21:37 - 22:01

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Beata Kirr
Co-Head—Investment & Wealth Strategies

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