As if we weren’t already devastated by all the losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a January 2021 article in Fortune dropped a new bombshell: “Women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs shed by the U.S. economy in December.” The article blamed the pandemic.
The news hit with a shock, but should we really have been surprised? In the United States, some people still live with the illusion that women are nearly on a level playing field. The pandemic revealed that this isn’t true.
Rather than causing the massive job losses among U.S. women, we should instead recognize that the pandemic merely shone a very bright spotlight on the underlying issues for women in the workplace.
What the Pandemic Illuminated
It’s true that the COVID crisis has placed a nearly unbearable burden on women. But that burden merely adds to the vulnerabilities that women already faced in the working world.
Compared to men, women worldwide are more likely to:
- Work in job categories, such as retail and hospitality, that traditionally offer low wages and limited job protections.
- Work in the informal sector, such as domestic work and small-scale agriculture, characterized by low and inconsistent income, poor working conditions, and legal and physical risks.
- Perform unpaid work, such as caring for children and elderly or sick family members, cooking, and doing household work. In developing countries, unpaid work can also include fetching firewood and water or caring for domestic animals.
Pandemic-related shutdowns disproportionately affected women because their job positions were already precarious. Additional factors included more women having to make tradeoffs between a job that required them to work away from the home—in other words, work that couldn’t be done remotely on a computer—and staying home to supervise kids doing remote learning.
The Fortune article cautions that the pandemic-exacerbated economic conditions for women could have long-lasting effects. Quoting Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the article said:
“The impact on women of this crisis is going to be one that they feel economically for years to come. We’re really in danger of widening gender and racial wage gaps—and that has huge impacts for the financial security of women, and of the families who are depending on women.”
The Perils of Women’s Under-Representation in the Workforce
Women’s under-representation in the formal workforce is nothing new, and it has long posed a huge risk to society as a whole.
For one thing, women consistently spend more of their incremental income on their households than men do. When women have better jobs, they have more to invest in their families’ education, nutrition, home improvement, and general welfare, with ripple effects that extend beyond their immediate families.
Conversely, the lack of good jobs for women stifles the kinds of family-based investments that can help lift the living standards and well-being of entire communities.
On a larger scale, the disparity between men’s and women’s representation in the workforce has global implications. As I wrote in my 2018 book, Access for All: Building Inclusive Economic Systems, low levels of women’s workplace participation worldwide are linked to lower levels of both economic growth and human development.
A widely quoted report from McKinsey & Company from 2015 stated that if women participated economically in the same way as men do, global GDP during the decade 2015 to 2025 could be $28 trillion more than if the original trend remained unchanged.
How Social Entrepreneurship Can Help
Especially in emerging or frontier markets, the general consensus is that social enterprises offer more and better-quality jobs for women than mainstream businesses. In part, at least, that’s because social entrepreneurship elevates assessment of social impact, such as gender equity, to a level on par with economic performance.
For example, a report from the British Council—“Activist to entrepreneur: The role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment in India”—found that a significantly higher percentage of women were employed in social enterprises than in the total workforce in countries as varied as the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, and Pakistan. (In India, the difference was very slight, with women comprising 24% of the total workforce and 25% of the social enterprise workforce.)
Another British Council “Activist to entrepreneur” report focused on the role of social enterprises in supporting women’s empowerment in the U.S. The authors acknowledge that “[t]here is no precise data on the gender balance in the social enterprise workforce in the US.” Still, borrowing data from the non-profit sector, the report proposes that as of 2017, the social enterprise sector’s workforce was 65% women, compared to only 46% of the overall U.S. workforce. That report also states that among social enterprises surveyed, 84% that cited creating employment as one of their impact areas also provided training and development, particularly for entry-level jobs for people who would otherwise be unemployed.
At Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, we see direct evidence of how social entrepreneurship is helping to provide more women with good jobs. Some examples:
- Smart Havens Africa, which works to make home ownership more affordable in Uganda, employs and trains women so they have access to the male-dominated fields of construction and engineering.
- The staff of the social enterprise Cropital, a crowdfunding platform that helps finance farmers in the Philippines, is more than 50% women.
- Livelyhoods, based in Kenya, creates jobs for women and youth in urban slums. Of the 2,000-plus jobs they’ve created, more than half are held by women.
- More than 80% of the full-time employees of Nicaragua- and Columbia-based Vega Coffee are women, as are 95% of their coffee farmer roasters.
From Spotlight to Action
If we’re serious about ending global poverty, we must work to boost women’s economic empowerment. Social entrepreneurship can help empower women economically in four ways: as leaders, employees, value-chain suppliers, and customers.
Although women as social enterprise founders or leaders tend to get the most attention, many more women can reap the benefits of good jobs as social enterprise employees. We need to identify the social enterprises that are creating good-quality jobs for women, then to drive more resources to them. Those resources can include directing impact investments, grants, and other funds; giving social entrepreneurs a bigger seat at the policymaking table; and supporting accelerators, like Miller Center, and other organizations working to scale the impact of social entrepreneurship.
By worsening the plight of working women, the COVID-19 pandemic also illuminated their struggles. Leveraging social entrepreneurship to create more good jobs for women is one way to turn that illumination into action.
Brigit Helms is executive director, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. She previously wrote about the real reason women entrepreneurs struggle to raise funds.