Then and Now: Remembering Women in the Workplace

Alarm goes off.  Cooking… cleaning… kids dressed and out the door… finding the most appropriate outfit… fighting traffic… meetings… projects… meetings… putting out fires… meetings… fighting traffic… working out… cooking… cleaning… overseeing homework… bathing… bedtime…laundry… bills… four hours of sleep.  Alarm goes off.  Repeat.  In case you don’t recognize what that is, it is a glimpse into the daily life of many women in the workplace.

While not every woman’s day looks identical, many women can empathize with this pattern.  Then, during the pandemic, life somehow became even more chaotic.  So, let’s take a moment to remember women in the workplace—then and now—and how we can better recognize those who are struggling.  In a perfect world, this will also prompt us to identify ways we can change the workplace for the better.

Women in the Workplace – The 1950s

My grandparents led a fairly stereotypical American family life when they got married in the 1950s.  The number of women in the workforce was not nearly as high as in modern day, coming in at just around 30%.  Thus, my grandma kept up the home and raised her three children, instead of pursuing a career outside the home.  Since she passed, I found out that she struggled with insecure thoughts surrounding her worth as a stay-at-home mom.  This surprised me, since I only knew her as a confident, working woman.  By the time I arrived on the scene, her children were grown, and she had established herself as a reliable, committed part of the workforce.

Women in the Workplace – The 1980s

While my dad didn’t shy away from cooking or laundry, traditional gender roles remained somewhat intact.  My mom was a young entrepreneur, however, she was the dominant cook and housekeeper of the family.  Therefore, the amount of responsibility she took on daily was impressive.  She did all the things that a typical housewife did, but also managed to run a successful seamstress operation.  If you look at history, this isn’t so shocking, considering women owned 25% of all U.S. firms by the 1980s.  Still, discrimination in lending to women didn’t become illegal until 1988.

Women in the Workplace – 2010

My husband was laid off in 2010 when the economy tanked in our city.  Although the layoff ended up being the catalyst for him launching his own small business, we rode the struggle bus together for a while.  Newly married, we started our union with less than half the income we thought we would.  I never imagined I’d be the breadwinner, but our options were limited, considering the state of the economy.  Even so, we pressed on, learning the benefit of using all our skills to create revenue through W-2 employment and sub-contractor gigs.  This kind of hustle was not uncommon for women in the workplace, especially as we learned the ways we could utilize technology to produce income.

Women in the Workplace in 2020

Photo of a woman working from home with a baby on her lap.

While I thought life was tough as the sole provider of our little two-person family back in 2010, it was nothing compared to the things that would happen five and ten years later.  In 2015, I returned to academia to earn a master’s degree… while I was working fulltime, commuting over two hours each day, and caring for two small children. I remember thinking, “Nothing could be harder than this.” 

Then, when the pandemic rendered us all homebodies, I continued to work fulltime, take care of my abode, and oversee my children’s education amid everything else.  It was in the middle of that storm when I realized this is the life of women in the workplace; I am not unique.  Women in the workplace in 2020 were expected to be flexible, know how to pivot, and carry weight that would appear to break our backs.  But we don’t break.  We press on.

That is, until the pandemic.  According to Michel Martin in an NPR interview, “More than 2 million women left the labor force in 2020.”  Black and Latin women suffered the biggest blows.

Women Struggling in the Workplace

Since the concept of the workplace has changed due to the pandemic, women are required to be more flexible than ever.  Gone are the days of showing up at work by 7:59 to punch the clock at 8:00 sharp.  Now, we check emails while eating breakfast, just so we can stay in the game, never ahead of the game.  Two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch period have morphed into lunch at 2:00, while on a Zoom call, camera turned off.  We are expected to achieve the same results, but with additional variables thrown at us.  Like laundry.  Folding laundry during meetings so that we can feel like we are accomplishing something while our peers present their topics.  It’s not that our colleagues’ presentations aren’t important, it’s just who will do the laundry if I don’t.  And when will I do it, if not now? 

It’s not a question of if a woman can achieve great results in the workplace. Rather, it’s a question of the price women pay to “do it all.”  You probably don’t have to look too far to see a woman who is struggling in the workplace, despite her best efforts to hide it.

Recognizing a Struggling Woman

If you see a woman who just doesn’t seem like herself or seems stressed to the max, it’s not a bad idea to start by asking how she is doing.  Practice active listening, and hear her out.  Here are some common reasons women struggle in the workforce:

Childcare

In order for many women to enter the workforce, they must find reliable childcare.  This can be problematic, especially where work schedules are concerned.  If women work odd shifts, it can be nearly impossible to find a childcare institution.  Additionally, the cost of quality childcare can be astronomical.

Gender Pay Gap

Even though we are making progress in breaking through the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap has not been eliminated.  Some careers (such as public education) have a level playing field where salary is concerned.  Still, others lag behind, continuing to pay genders differently, despite similar qualifications.

Photo of a woman holding a sign that says FREEZE RENT FREEZE MORTGAGE.
Source | Getty Images file

Housing Issues

Approximately 25% of women in the workforce are single mothers.  This means a huge portion of the workforce is trying to put a roof over their family’s head with only one income.  Sadly, evictions disproportionately affect Women of Color, and the pandemic only exacerbated the problem. 

One of the struggles for women is balancing their PTO, especially after taking maternity leave.  Furthermore, many women feel it will be frowned upon to pump at work in order to breastfeed their child.  Therefore, returning to the workplace post-partum can be a huge barrier to personal goals for the wellbeing of their family, such as successful breastfeeding.

These are just few examples of the pressures women face.  As you can see, they can pile up faster than the dirty laundry.  So, what can we do to solve some of these problems?  Well, that’s where business owners would be wise to consider resources they could present to their female employees.  Is there a nearby daycare to partner with at a reduced rate?  Can employers commit to eliminating the gender pay gap in their organization?  Could employers make a point of providing time specifically for new mothers on an as-needed basis (to care for sick babies or to pump at work)?  These are questions only an employer can consider.

The Future for Women in the Workplace

Only time will tell how the future will change for women in the workplace.  However, it would be negligent to think the current pace at which women are working is sustainable.  It is not sustainable.  Businesses must do a better job to recognize that what happened to women in the workplace in 2020 could easily happen again if we don’t make lasting changes.

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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