Global pandemics have reshaped mankind throughout history via job loss, mortality, and poverty. Around 9.6 million U.S. workers lost their jobs due to Covid-19 but the impact across genders is uneven.
According to Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, 30 years of progress was erased overnight. About 2.3 million women left the workforce in the last year, with women of color leaving at a rate twice that of white women. “America’s moms, especially moms of color, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. The crisis ending doesn’t mean back to normal. For moms, “normal” wasn’t working in the first place”.
To dig deeper into this societal impasse, I interviewed five women renowned in their fields: Kavita Bala (Dean of the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science at Cornell University), Rebecca Lester (Associate Professor of Accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business), Linda Lu (Director of Ecosystem at Oasis Labs), Victoria Pettibone (Managing Partner of Astia Fund), and Navrina Singh (Founder & CEO of Credo AI, Board Member at Mozilla Foundation). I reached out to these eminent women because they are thought leaders across industry and academia since I was curious if the impact on women is equally pervasive across all walks of life.
Dean Bala defined the problem by saying, “during Covid-19, a lot of researchers, especially young professors with children, were negatively impacted because they could not access their labs or had to provide more family care when all the schools and daycares closed down. In this group female researchers were disproportionately affected by familial expectations. This is impacting academia’s ability to maintain a strong pipeline of women excelling in research. The same has been felt across the professional workforce.” These comments made me wonder about the limiting factors driving the drop in female researchers. Dean Bala correctly outlined, “this is primarily due to a lack of childcare and eldercare. There is a dearth of alternative educational opportunities for children of young female faculty members. So the faculty have to take care of the children themselves. Women have to provide all hands-on care and have been unable to write as many papers or do as much research during the pandemic.” Dean Bala alluded to a more significant issue that going remote was not designed for all children. Due to this, a greater burden is placed on mothers to ensure learning continuity for children.
Along the same lines, Professor Lester said, “research shows that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, in large part, because the home tasks (that already largely fell on women’s shoulders) grew. I personally experienced this as my husband and I were both faced with juggling two time-intensive careers, along with overseeing online school for our young kindergarten daughter when the pandemic started. My husband was superbly helpful and involved, yet my research was undoubtedly affected.”
While some women had to leave the workforce but even the ones who stayed are getting impacted, as Professor Lester said, “I anticipate that for women who did not leave the workforce, we could observe long-run effects in terms of career advancement and (by extension) pay. This could substantially reduce many of the advances we had seen in recent years.”
Employers have responded positively with an understanding eye. Linda shareda perspective probably reflective of various companies, “at Oasis Labs, I’d not say we have everything figured out, but we are trying our best to make things relatively easier for our teammates, especially ones with young children. For example, we are a fully distributed team, and our team has the commute-to-office time saved for better use, such as taking care of their family members and, most importantly, taking care of themselves. We also have flexible working hours. Oasis is not a typical 9-to-5 workplace. In any given project, we’ll have folks across US, Europe, and Asia time zones, and everyone is very accommodative to one another’s schedule. Sometimes, we have teammates who cannot be available during the morning because of childcare issues, they will just let everyone know on Slack, and that’s perfectly okay. Everyone on the team is very responsible, and they will get their work done during the hours when they are available in a timely fashion. Because of the remote working and flexible hours work policy, we are hoping everyone can ride out the pandemic slightly more easily.”
It is heartwarming to see companies providing flexibility to employees. Work from home has become a norm for jobs that need only a computer and a phone. But the state of the blue-collar workforce is poles apart, hence deepening the societal divide. Some working-class women now have two jobs: besides their standard day job, they have taken on side gigs as drivers, delivery workers, tutors, chefs, or hall monitors to combat rising inflation.
After digging into the problem, I wondered if any existing policies aid women in the workplace. A survey by World Policy Analysis Center concluded that US is way behind other nations in terms of providing guaranteed paid parental leave at a federal level. As an example, Britain and Japan provide 39 and 52 weeks of paid parental leave, respectively, whereas the US provides none. The US federal law guarantees new parents 6 weeks of time off but that is unpaid and hence impacts the parents financially especially in the time of need. In addition, not all workers qualify even for this unpaid leave. There are only a few other countries – none from the developed world – that offer no paid parental leave. Having said that, nine US states and the District of Columbia mandate some degree of paid parental leave.
The issue of parental leave doesn’t end there. Even where the paid parental leave exists, there are policies unconsciously fostering inequality in the workplace, worsened by the pandemic coating. A male employee at a company can spring back to work (from home) after a few weeks of childbirth while still being on leave whereas the mother is physically out for roughly a year. This creates a differential in career progression between genders. Similarly, some universities provide a one-year (research) extension on the tenure track for becoming a full-time faculty member to both parents.
The policy of equal parental leave was actually created with the best intentions because otherwise, employers will have to do the uncomfortable and frankly impossible job of assessing who is providing more baby support. Professor Lester succinctly summarized, “giving everyone the same relief doesn’t help the people who have been affected the most. It makes it worse for one party.”
This discussion led me to inquire how society can combat women’s issues. Victoria and I discussed what needs to happen to ease that burden – men taking on a more prominent role in the household for one. Government assistance is another – the child tax credit is already one way to support families. More importantly, however, Victoria opined, “payments to women are a band-aid; instead, the focus needs to be on childcare, women’s education, and eldercare. The ephemeral payments, while helpful in the short term, don’t create long-term sustainable solutions.”
Reshma Saujani, via her Marshall Plan for Moms, has spearheaded a more encompassing strategy and is supported by female leaders like Anu Duggal (Female Founders Fund) and Julia Collins (Planet FWD). The plan calls for a framework for women to work and have kids: direct payments to moms, affordable childcare, pay equity, and re-training programs for women can lessen the problem.
Can technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) be developed to help women? Robots can partially replace the household cleaning done by women, but it is a lot harder to replace child care or elder care with AI, as Dean Bala explained. Despite automation or camera-based solutions, it is hard to replace a human being for family care. In addition, families with a lower economic status probably can’t even afford these solutions.
Navrina talked about issues with AI governance and bias. She explained how data collection needs to be broad and inclusive. A biased data set can result in AI models serving only a section of society. At times, the bias also unconsciously creeps into the algorithms based on the designer’s background and experience. Data collection has to encompass all the sections of the society for the study. In addition, algorithm development should be done by a team of designers spanning genders and socioeconomic backgrounds.
These discussions left me desiring more from the AI development world: from emotional robots for children to machine learning to train women. We are in the nascent stage of developing these technologies to level the playing field for women and hence uplift the mankind.
Looking back, what came from these interviews was the overpowering fact that Covid-19 exacerbated the gender disparity issue in the workplace. While both men and women are impacted during the pandemic, there is a strong distinction between what a pandemic means for each gender. Technologies like AI can help lessen the impact if focused on women’s top issues and developed with a gender-inclusive paradigm. A key aspect that unfolded is that policy and technology development for women needs a thorough research of both conscious and unconscious ramifications. Collectively, our goal has to be to go beyond the “normal” of the pre-pandemic level because that normal was uneven to begin with.