Of the many long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re only starting to understand the scope of, the impact on women in the workplace is one of the most disturbing. The initial lockdowns drove women out of paid work rapidly—according to the National Women’s Law Center, between February and April of 2020, women lost 12.2 million jobs, erasing a decade’s worth of job gains since the Great Recession. [i] As of early 2022, those losses had not been recovered—in January 2022 over 1 million fewer women were working than in February 2020, even though men had fully recouped their pandemic-related labor force losses by that time. [ii] Why women were disproportionately affected is no surprise to anyone familiar with the pre-pandemic pressures on women in the workforce, particularly mothers.
Even before the pandemic, women took on more childcare responsibilities and household labor than men, according to a 2018 McKinsey Report. [iii] Lockdowns sent mothers in professional positions home to work remotely while simultaneously shutting down childcare and schools, leaving them with an impossible challenge: maintain their work at its previous high standard while attempting to simultaneously care for children and/or support their schoolwork. It’s no wonder that women who had already been under substantial stress opted out when something had to give.
This development seems to finally be shining a spotlight on the broken system women have to battle when it comes to pursuing challenging, creative professional work. It’s assumed that dedicated professionals will put their job first, pretending they have no life outside of the office. This illusion has historically been made possible for men who have families by wives who stayed home to care for the children. That sets up a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations of what it takes to be a successful executive: available at a moment’s notice, for unlimited hours, wherever your job might take you. Of course, if you have to pick up kids from childcare, that simply doesn’t work.
When expectations didn’t change, women were forced to alter their career trajectories; according to the 2018 McKinsey Report above, women were more likely to switch to a job with greater flexibility after becoming a parent—in part because they were 8 times more likely than men to look after sick children or manage their children’s schedules. This type of move was often accompanied by a pay cut for doing the same kind of work as they were doing previously. Thus, highly qualified women have found themselves underemployed, in jobs below their level of skill and expertise, and with limited (or no) prospects for advancement because they needed to trade opportunity for the predictability.
Iffel’s founder and CEO, Hema Dey, experienced the insidious effect of outdated work expectations in her own career. When she decided it was time to start a family, it was clear her previous travel-heavy work schedule was no longer possible. She still possessed the same drive and qualifications as she’d had before—she just needed a work arrangement that would allow her to balance work and home. Instead, it was clear that opportunities to advance were now closed because it was assumed she was no longer committed to her career.
Instead of accepting an unwanted detour onto the corporate “mommy track,” Hema started her own company, where she could put her expertise to work on behalf of clients on her own terms. She also created a work environment where mothers like her—talented, creative professionals—could pursue a career in an environment that didn’t penalize them for wanting a fulfilling home life as well. At Iffel, remote work isn’t a temporary workaround enacted by bosses itching to get everyone back to in-person work as quickly as possible. It’s a regular feature of the way we operate that allows our team to do their work with flexibility and autonomy. We measure success not by hours spent in the office, but by the quality of the work we do together.
With many companies rushing to return to a pre-pandemic normal of in-person work, will we lose the opportunity to fix the systemic problems that keep working mothers from reaching their full potential? Iffel International is committed to breaking the outdated corporate mold that has robbed countless talented women of the opportunity to pursue their professional passions. If you’re a woman who’s been left behind by a work model that doesn’t work for your family, with a degree or experience going to waste, we want to hear your story. Together we can ensure this problem isn’t ignored—contact us here to share your experience.