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Salzman: For women, pandemic-driven change carries added risk

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Salzman: For women, pandemic-driven change carries added risk

  • Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr

In recent months, I have been asked often — including during virtual events hosted by the Financial Times and The Hill — if there are emerging trends that I view as either positive or negative for women.

This is a topic I have thought, talked, and written about for years — but I find that, amid this global pandemic and continued economic and social upheaval, the forces shaping women's lives today are even more numerous, complex, and essential to understand.

My main concern for women right now is this: With so many adults now working remotely and so many children being schooled from home, it is clear that many women are being compelled to take on a disproportionate share of new household responsibilities driven by the pandemic, and to do so at the expense of their careers. In September, an estimated 865,000 American women dropped out of the labor force — four times more than the number of men who did so. Worse still, McKinsey's newly released Women in the Workplace report indicates that more than one in four women in the U.S. are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely — a possibility the consultancy characterizes as "an emergency for corporate America."

This backward slide threatens to erase much of the progress women have made in recent decades. Are we ready to accept a future that looks like the not-so-distant past, where for most heteronormative nuclear families, the man is expected to prioritize a career that makes him the chief breadwinner and the woman is expected to run the household, including the children's education and care, while simultaneously working a job that is viewed as less important?

At home, at work, and in the broader public discourse, we need to start talking more about this dynamic, which could leave an entire generation of women disadvantaged if it is not addressed. While it is clear that our experience of living with COVID-19 is likely to usher in significant long-term changes in the way we live and work, those changes should not be permitted to come disproportionately at the expense of women. Spouses/partners have an obvious role to play in addressing this trend head-on, as do employers and society in general.

There is reason for optimism. Yes, months of lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions have been disruptive to our work and school schedules. It has been an adjustment even for those lucky enough to have remained employed. But the long-term consequence may be that women and men alike are afforded greater flexibility by their employers to perform their jobs and further their careers in a way that better meshes with the responsibilities of raising children and running a household.

In other words, the traditional workday has died; COVID killed it. If the question is no longer, "How can I juggle these incompatible responsibilities within a traditional workday?" but "How can I perform my job responsibilities as effectively as possible on my own schedule?" working parents will have an opportunity to distribute responsibilities more equitably, to the benefit of all. That would be much-needed good news for all of us, women in particular.

Marian Salzman is senior vice president, global communications at Philip Morris International. She has been named one of the world’s top five trendspotters and is among the world’s most-awarded public relations executives. She continues to consider Two Bird Ranch on the East Side her home and was chair of Tucson Values Teachers for two years, from 2014-2016.

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