A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Alison Bell: Working mothers need options, support as they recover from the pandemic’s wrath on women in the workforce

We are unfortunately facing yet another national crisis as the pandemic has taken equity out of the workplace, namely for women and working mothers. Recent federal data continues to indicate women are having to leave work at a far greater rate than men. So much so that the labor participation of women in the workforce is where it was in the 1980s as a record number — 2.4 million women — have left the labor force nationwide.

The potential long-term effects of this crisis must be addressed as we face two undeniable truths:

• We need women in the workforce.
• Women need options and support as they recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Alison Bell

Numbers became most startling in December, when 140,000 jobs were lost in that month’s time and all of those jobs were held by women; meanwhile, men gained 16,000. On a local level, just one year ago, women began comprising the majority of insured unemployment claimants in Kentucky for the first time in over two decades. Collectively, this is a drastic difference from nearly one year ago when women held more than 50% of jobs.

While it’s been made clear that the virus has had disproportionate effects on women, it’s worth noting that it’s hit working mothers and women of color the hardest. As of recently, about 1 in 12 Black women and 1 in 11 Latina women remain unemployed. These women are often at the intersection of multiple barriers, experiencing the effects of gender and racial bias while working in some of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic (i.e., retail, hospitality, healthcare, education).

On top of this, children who were once in the classroom quickly pivoted to remote learning. Likewise, daycares and child care options nearly vanished. Without support at home, the ability to maintain – let alone grow – careers became nearly impossible for women.

We often assume the fundamental cause of this workplace inequity is old-fashioned societal discrimination against women, which certainly holds partial blame in the matter. But, it’s been found that early on in their careers, women actually do earn as much as their men counterparts (or closer to). However, it’s as time goes on and families grow, that women are often held back in their careers. The issue is more systemic in nature — embedded in our society’s structure. About 10 years into a woman’s career, or as children enter the picture, a woman’s role in the workplace becomes complicated due to larger, structural barriers like lack of accessible childcare, supportive or flexible peers and leadership, and more.

COVID-19 laid bare the inequities in Kentucky’s workforce, proving the need for universities across the board to help bridge the gap between students and access to education. Women often feel like they have a choice to make — be a mom or go to work. It’s critical that women feel supported in a way that they can thrive in both roles. When it comes to education, there’s immense value for women to have a flexible education pathway as they are often juggling many other roles and responsibilities — roles that have been amplified this past year.

Universities like Western Governors University (WGU) serve a diverse student body, especially those who are not well-served by traditional colleges. Our education model highlights four key access points — cost, flexibility, place and time. And for women, these are all equally important as the only way for us to set up students for success is to understand where people are right now and meet them there.

The pandemic exposed this issue in new ways, but it was potentially transformative in creating more opportunities for businesses and institutions. It helped them maintain and evolve with more family-centric policies like remote work and flexibility, but also empathy and value-added support. Even so, society still has a long way to go in supporting working mothers to create equitable opportunities in the workforce and eliminate the many barriers that work against us on a regular basis.

As a working mother, join me in advocating for women in the workforce — in Kentucky and across the nation. Encourage one another. Online universities like WGU offer women a lifeline as they look for new opportunities after a year of extreme hardship. Having access to higher education, scholarship opportunities and overall community support can help break down barriers that women face.

If women are set back, the impact will undoubtedly reverberate far into our future. It’s time to remind our current and future generations the need for equitable opportunities for all.

Alison Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience and is the Regional Vice President of Western Governors University, overseeing Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky. WGU is a nonprofit, online university offering 60+ degrees in the four colleges of business, teaching, I.T. and health/nursing. WGU now serves more than 121,000 students nationwide and has more than 186,000 graduates in all 50 states.

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