here have all“W the workers gone?” employers lamented, as labor shortages snarled everything from Washington’s ferry system to neighborhood restaurants. Some pundits attributed it to the too-hard-to-pass-up $300 unemployment benefit, others to the pandemic. One thing is abundantly clear: Working women in the U.S. were disproportionally impacted. This fall, we asked three local occupational experts for their take on the mass exodus. The conversation, held over Zoom, has been edited for clarity.
We are talking because women have left the workforce in droves over the last few years, in particular. In September 2020, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, which was four times more than men. And as of June 2021, according to NPR, the U.S. labor force has 1.8 million fewer women in it. So Nancy, Yoky, and Marissa, why are women leaving the workforce?
► NJ: OK, I’ll start here. There's a drove of reasons. For right now we're in an unusual time, or we're coming out at an unusual time, where the pandemic really threw in sharp relief what women contend with when they work because it all went home. They're working, they're doing childcare, they're doing homecare, they're overseeing many people's schedules. And when that all came crashing into the house, in March of 2020, many women said, “This is unsustainable.” I can see everybody here nodding their heads. And what I think we know what happened was that at the high point, it was anywhere between five and 11 million women stepped back from work so that they could handle the day-to-day activities of what was happening at home. Now that…you know, kids are back in school, women are starting to look for work, and their partners are looking for work, too, but they're looking for different things.
► YM: Yeah, I'll echo Nancy. I felt like I was a victim myself: I have four kids at home, two in high school, one in middle school, and one in elementary school. Suddenly, we're told that they're going to be home, Zooming, you know. We decided to also shut down our company at that time, so I was going to be Zooming from home…all of us Zooming and, you know, suddenly the role of being a mom, a wife, and being a CEO of the company trying to get this product launching, all came colliding. There was no space to escape. You know, kids are screaming, saying, like, “Mommy, help!” to the team meeting, like where we're talking about critical meetings, all of that were in the same spot. When I wanted to think, there was nothing because kids are, you know, hanging on to my legs. When I wanted to even go to the bathroom, there was no such thing. Everybody was following me. They all needed help, right?
► NJ: Totally, yes, yes. We at the time, my business partner and I, her kids are younger, right? I've got a tween and a teen. Her kids were, you know, in preschool and lower elementary, and we were like, oh, we're working in like three-minute time slices. Yeah, it was really, really challenging.
► MB: And I think also, you know, I tend to study workers in jobs that we would consider to be blue collar, which isn't, you know, a lot of Seattle, but it's still a very important part of our economy. And what I have found in my research from the pandemic is that the jobs that are able to be done from home, tend to be higher paid, tend to be held by men, and tend to be held by white men in particular. And so women, when you're looking at over the entire labor force, the work that women are being paid to do, which we know is just a very small slice of the work that women do, the work they are paid to do tended to be work that was done outside of the home. And so during the pandemic they were often choosing between risking exposure to the virus, or staying home with their families and giving up their job and paycheck. And when you're in a situation where women make less than men across the board, often, you know, particularly in heterosexual partnerships, it falls on the woman to not only continue doing the work that she has been doing her whole life, but also to give up for paid work, either due to safety, due to necessity, due to it closing down, it not being available anymore, and returning home.
► NJ: Well, Marissa, I'd love to know your thought on this: I think three or four of the biggest industries that were hit hard when the pandemic hit were travel, hospitality, health care, restaurants. They tend to be blue color, they tend to be female focused, and I've been reading a lot about how…in those four segments, people are having trouble, or the owners are having trouble getting people to come back for the reasons that you state. I'm just wondering if you've seen anything on those lines.
► MB: Those women's kind of experience, the way the pandemic affected those industries is a little different. So hospitality and restaurants, that was just, they were closed down either by, you know, for public health reasons, or people just were no longer traveling. And of course, health care, the effect was largely overwork and burnout and risk of exposure and high prevalence of disease. And so those, all of those together can be reasons why anybody chooses to leave the workplace. And now, you know, we are seeing workers who are saying, “I don't want to go back to a job where I am going to be burned out,” or “I'm going to be exposed,” or “I'm going to not be paid enough to justify putting my child in care.” And then also with the uncertainty around schools could close at any minute, around that, like, there’s still drama around that. This angst that anytime the school calls, it's like, Oh, no, it's happening again. So I think that women who are recognizing that when something like that happens, it's likely to largely fall on them. And, you know, heterosexual partnerships, in particular, are kind of bracing for that. And like, “Why would I take a job where I'm going to get exposed and get low pay only to have to quit?”
► NJ: Do you think that hyper-vigilance is going to continue as vaccines for the five- to 11-year-old set come rolling out? I just read something about that this morning, that Pfizer’s…applied for permission to roll this out.
► MB: Yeah, to the extent this is germane to the conversation, I do feel like from what we've seen, probably uptake in kids aged five to 11 is not going to be great. It's going to be less than what we've seen in age 12 to 15. You know, in certain places of the country, like where we happen to live, it's probably going to be much better and much higher. But in general, I think there's just a lot of concerns around vaccinations for kids that young, so it may or may not have a large population effect.
The pandemic has really emphasized inequities in pay, in gender, and class, and also the emotional labor that women are doing every day that is unpaid. So that all kind of comes to a head, and where do you see us going from here? What are the solutions that we see?
► YM: I'll jump in for a second. I think that we have to adapt right? Something big happened to the world and I think that the workforce and how we work have to change. I see that even large companies are realizing that they can't just ask everybody to come back to the office, they're gonna have to go to the hybrid model. And an actually hybrid model also has advantages where they are able to live maybe closer to their parents or, you know, where they can get help for childcare. They’ve always wanted to be outdoors, but they have to live in a big city —they can actually create a space for themselves to balance and then look out for well-being. And I think that's a good thing. Also, I think creating more and more jobs, especially for women, to be able to work from home, and then be also flexible with hours, I think is going to be really important. There so many women who are, you know, amazingly talented, they got a college degree worked really hard, and they had kids, and then they wanted to be a good mom. So they decided that they’re going to take a little bit of time off. Then when [the kids] start to, you know, they start to go to school, they’re like, “Now what, what did I do? Did I sacrifice myself?” But I think that that’s the moment that we can really provide a lot of great opportunities for those women to start getting back into the careers and do amazing things. Yep, that
► NJ: You’re talking about my demographic, you know what I mean? Those are all the people we work with at the Swing Shift. And I think it’s two things, right? One, this hybrid model, I totally agree. There was a LinkedIn study that came out in the summer that said flexibility is the number one requirement for not just women, but for working parents in the workforce. That’s the number one thing they want in in their roles going forward. But also, what does productivity look like in an environment, right? There’s, I think, some false assumptions about having, you know, butts in seats and faces in conference rooms, where that’s the most productive environment. The head of I think Goldman Sachs came out and basically poo pooed this flexibility model, which basically got my hackles up because I think that we have to think differently about, well, what does a productive day look like?
► YM: I have to admit I'm guilty of that. When I start to go back to the office, I forgot how this human connection allows us to make things happen. And I can't live without it. I don't think my company can live without it, but we have to, you know? It's not like I’m saying solely remote, we can forever do this. We actually need those connection moments, we need to have those moments that were created in the same room whiteboarding, talking about critical things that wouldn't happen on Zoom. But that's not it, we got to be flexible, we got to have again this hybrid—the word “hybrid,” to me, is a key that we really have to enable. Also I think bringing back the part about supporting. For those who are hibernating a home, it's still hard. I mean, that's the thing that broke me too, like kids screaming at home, and you have to pick up, and then you have to do all those things. While there's no space between that and work, we got to provide health and that's one of the things that we're creating as a product [at Yohana], just making sure that we're creating this partner that you can constantly get a little bit of help. It's a little partner on your shoulders: “Oh, I can quickly delegate this.” I think those little moments that you can create because there is a little bit of help, even for those people who might not be able to afford the full-time personal assistant, we got to provide a little bit of that care in everyday life.
► MB: I think we need paid leave. And I know here in Washington, we now have some, but we need longer paid leave that replaces more of paychecks that applies to all workers. We need affordable and accessible high-quality childcare. And as you two have said, flexible work, which benefits women but it benefits people in general, whether it's you want to leave early so you can pick up your kid from school or you want to leave early so you can go on a hike or go to a baseball game. It benefits the mental health and well-being of everybody. And something that we have been piloting in the construction industry is actually mentorship for women, kind of having a more senior person who you can go to when you deal with these gendered issues in the workplace, which we all encounter whether we're at home or whether we're in person. And so, yes, that sense of support in a kind of standardized way.
► YM: Oh my gosh, I totally believe in this mentorship. Just having somebody even to talk to you saying, “Been there, you can get through this” right? Just a little bit of that support makes you realize like, “Oh, I don't have to be stuck in this circle thinking like, I can't do this. I can't do this.” There's a way out.
► MB: Or just knowing, “Oh, other people have experienced this too. I'm not crazy.”
► NJ: Yeah, exactly. And Marissa, I think you're right on, and particularly in industries where, you know, you're the only woman on the crew, right? You need somebody when people are giving you a hard time or you're doing that, you know, we call it at my house the “grapple grapple,” when you’re like “OK, do I do this? Do I do that?” What's gonna be mission critical, and what's going to fall on the floor and break? I'll reach to my back my background: I worked in technology, I worked at International Data Group and then at Microsoft before I went out on my own, and I worked at Sterling. This is all high-tech PR. And many times, I was the only woman in the room. And I would talk to my colleagues and I'd say, “Well, how do you do this?” And they said, “Oh, well, our partners went home because somebody has to keep the home fires burning.” And that's tough. When your mentors are telling you, “Well, it's time for you to go home.” And I'm like, “No, but my career.” So it's a tricky balance.
In Seattle, where childcare is so expensive and the median income is now over $100,000, where many people do not make that, how have working women and working mothers been affected?
► NJ: [At the Swing Shift,] we've been in business for five years, and we've worked with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. And the number one thing that kicks women out of the labor force is childcare. It kicks them out, and it keeps them out, right? The cost of preschool care is the same as the cost of sending a kid to UW. And when you have an average of two children, very quickly what happens is it's actually kid number two that boots women out of the workforce. They can make it work with number one, but the second one comes on and all of a sudden, you were looking at $50,000 a year in childcare, and that's before you do anything else. And it becomes prohibitively expensive, even at $100,000. You know, another quarter of that goes to taxes, and maybe, at some point, many women make this decision of it isn't worth it. And if you've got a child who's got special needs, I mean, it's all hands on deck.
► YM: I’ve been listening to Nancy, what you're talking about, and I thought, “Boy, it goes across all different demographics.” And then, of course, I'm lucky that I had a faculty job at UW, and I'm in Silicon Valley, but many of the problems still go across. It's the decision of at what point does it make sense to just stay home? And sometimes it's financial, sometimes it's just that you want to be a good mom. Like you don't want to miss those moments. And sometimes you feel like your kid is failing because you're not spending enough time. Right? Those things are so hard. Because I have four kids, caring for them is a lot of cost, just like you said, childcare. When you have over two kids, childcare doesn't make sense, you've got to hire somebody. And when you have that many kids, you know, you've got to have multiple help. And you are paying more to have your kids cared for and missing out on their life, at the same time, while you're at a job, and what I always go back to is that what wakes me up in the morning and keeps me going is that I have this other part that is contributing to society, right? I feel like I want to not only raise my kids to be amazing and then be a great family member, but I want to also contribute to society. And sometimes that's worth the financial burden to try to make sure that I have that place. Also it is another role model thing for your kids. Continue to make sure that you are doing something that is important out there is really critical. And the third part, I think it's mental health. You need a break from your kid, sometimes you go nuts. I think those moments to be away from home and then kick butt in something else, and then when you go home, you have the mental space to be nice to your kids.
McKinsey recently released a study about burnout and women. One in three women are considering changing jobs or leaving their jobs since the pandemic started, compared to one in four previously. How have employers responded? What is contributing to this burnout?
► NJ: Right now it's being referred to as the Great Resignation. People aren't just quitting and going home, right? I think what's happened during the pandemic, we hear this over and over again, is workers are reevaluating their priorities. And it's not just women, it's men too. We do a lot of work with PEPS groups here in the Puget Sound region and it's the guys who are saying, “I want to be home and see my family.” And, “Yes, it's great to be part of this.” This runs across industries and responsibilities, and they're saying it's so exciting to be part of building a brand and building this big thing. But one father I happen to talk to said, “I didn't see my family for two months, because I was working on a launch. And he said, “I don't want that anymore.” And I think that that is happening across industries and across rules. This time home has made people reflect on what it is they want and what they don't want.
► YM: Yeah, I see a lot of balance that people somehow achieved. Spending decades of optimization, work, family life, just went up the window. For all kinds of reasons, right? Like the pandemic is not only for some people that work and family balance didn't work out. But being home was actually great for men and women; they got to see kids more, and then they're having the second thoughts like, “Maybe my balance was not great. Maybe I want to balance it differently.” So I think definitely this shift in the priority is happening, but that balance is off for a lot of us. You know, that's one of the things that we really also even thought about as we're creating this product for Yohana is to say, how do we bring balance to people again in a way that they want to create more time to work so that they can really get back and focus a little more and work great? Some people lost that time with kids that's more special away from the technology. Some people need that date night, lost that time with the husband because they're just shuffling kids or combating whatever else they've got. So those are some things that everybody that we spoke with who we had in the field trial, as we were going out with a Yohana membership, have talked about that balance is something that they really need to restore and we work really hard for that.
► NJ: I think the other end of it is that in a technology-focused area and with white-collar jobs that pay really well that almost feels like it's a luxury to have that, because for many women, they must work and maybe they are the economic engine in their household. I think that in the industries that Marissa is looking at, there's as much need as want in there.
► MB: I think women in every household, whether they are paid to work or not, are the economic engine of the house, right? Because if a woman is staying home, it is allowing a man to be able to work, it is supporting a man. Construction is huge here in Seattle and King County, and I think a lot of women actually enter the construction field because they want a paid training program, it's a very secure job, it can be very well paid, they have backing from a union. And then they get in and realize that there's no women's bathrooms on site. And I start my day at four in the morning, and daycares don't open at four in the morning, and also the guys are jerks to me. So kind of what I see, they realize that they really want to be a construction worker, that they really want to do the work, and there's pride of work, and there's joy in work. So what frustrates me as an occupational health researcher is to see these women who want to be doing this job but can't because of these barriers that have been up for them. You know which is slightly different than women who are working and don't want to be working. Both are situations that I wish we didn't have, of course, but when, there are barriers being put up, either actively or passively to keep women out of that space, it's truly frustrating.
► NJ: The childcare issue I have to say is the number one thing. And we haven't touched on this, but you know, one in five working women, they're single parents, right? And so they're doing this on their own with varying levels of external support. So I think it becomes even more important, and of course, it hits communities of color, even harder.
► YM: It's funny because when some people went to our webpage, people saw a lot of like, we're really making sure that women feel supported. And we came off a little bit potentially one-sided. Of course, we're here for men too. Of course, we’re here for busy families. But a lot of people said, “Wow, this is a perfect solution for single moms.” They just felt it when they went on the webpage. And I think that is a big one. But you know, I think there's two sides to this, that we're also thinking very carefully about. The company is providing that partnership and a support for those people who need it. But we also provide jobs for those women and men who want to have the flexible job. Our service is actually a tech-enabled partnership. It's an app, but behind it, you're texting to a real person to talk to. That person who's going to come up with some ways to help you are humans, and we hire a bunch of those people. And they can work from home, they can work from wherever they want, they can work the hours that work for a lot of women. Our members have a little more time in the middle of the day or end of day. A lot of people who just have managing kids busy in the morning, then they have a little time in the middle of the day, then they're busy in the afternoon, and they put the kids down and they have a little bit of time. So that kind of timeframe actually worked really well. I think that just thinking about this two-sided need of having that flexible job, but also having a partner, is something that we are looking in and making sure that we are able to accommodate as much as possible.
► MB: One thing I kind of wanted to mention is, we all have kids, but not all women have kids, and it's definitely not a defining part of womanhood to be a mom. So something that I spend some time thinking about is there are women without kids, there are women who don't have traditional marriages or partnerships. So it’s kind of this idea of, yes, maybe there are challenges of being a parent and working. But just in general, there are challenges being a woman in a workplace. All women have been suffering from gendered experiences at work, you know, whether you have kids or do not, whatever your sexuality may be, and so I think that we just need more women in leadership positions, which is why it's great to meet you Yoky and Nancy, because I think, in general, the more women in leadership positions, the more we get that like top-down kind of no tolerance for sexual harassment, for gender, and negatively gendered experiences at work. And so I think we need women in leadership across the board in our companies in order to kind of help improve that experience, which I think is shared by all women.
► NJ: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, research study after study shows that when you have women in leadership positions, your company is more profitable and more productive.
► YM: I don't intend to do this, but we do have quite a lot of women who are absolutely amazing in our company. And, you know, people sometimes see like, “Oh, maybe I can do this, or maybe this would be a women-friendly environment.” So I definitely urge more folks to, you know, let's do it. Let's lead the way. And I think that when you get into this position to mentor, be visible, make sure that the other women feel inspired or at least just able to follow and then feel like, “OK, maybe I'll give it a one more try.” I think that's really important. What the other thing that I notice about a lot of amazing folks out there, and as we know, women, especially our mission-driven people, at the end of the day, a lot of when I ask girls and say, “What do you want to be?” Often they don't say, “Well, you know, I just want to show off how good I am with math,” but they're actually thinking about ways to contribute to society. And I love that. And I want to make sure that those things are also more and more encouraged, as the balance becomes important in this world. What kind of jobs should they pick? You know it’s a struggle to have a job no matter how you look at it, then let's make sure that they pick a job that's meaningful, it's mission-driven, and how do we think about all of that? And how do we enhance the fact that a lot of women and girls know how to think about those things? So I think we should also think about creating more and more mission-driven jobs, which make them feel really good, which make them feel like they are contributing to society. It could be being a nurse right now. I know that a lot of nurses, first-line workers, of course, they're burnt out, but they are saving lives. They're doing amazing things. That's really wonderful. You know, what if they decide to go in technology? Rather than build video games, why don't they use those technology that really help people's life in different ways? And maybe it's about saving the environment, maybe it's about stopping wildfire. Maybe it's about helping other women to be able to get a job, right? My nonprofit is really focused on kids with learning differences, and that's another area so many women who are mission-driven and who think they only have 10 hours a day, a week, still come and say, “You know what, I think I want to do this.” And then the more opportunities are out there. I think that the more women we attract—and again it doesn't have to be a full-time job, it could be 10 hours, it could be 30 hours—and if we can encourage more and more of that, I think that the world and the new workplace is going to be a different scene.