Looking Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Shaping the Future for Women@Work

A mother works from home with her child sitting in the background

ADP's Chief Economist, Nela Richardson, spoke with CNN's Christine Romans during the Women@Work Summit to discuss economic insights for women in the workplace. Here's an overview of the topics they discussed as well as a look at the path forward for working women.

More than a year after the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, the world of work looks starkly different, particularly for women. This was a main theme of the virtual summit "Women@Work: Redefining the Workforce of the Future," hosted by ADP on May 25, 2021. In the opening session, ADP's Chief Economist, Nela Richardson, and CNN's Chief Business Correspondent, Christine Romans, discussed the role of women in economic development and the impact of the pandemic on the advancement of women in the workplace. Here's a look at the topics they discussed in their 60-minute conversation.

The Pandemic's Economic Toll

Richardson started by explaining how the pandemic affected women much worse than men and wiped out years of progress. In February 2020, unemployment was at a 50-year low, and a large share of the job gains were going to women. This accounted for the best labor participation rate since 1999, as higher wages enticed more women to join the workforce.

When Richardson was asked to describe the pandemic's economic impact, she noted it was "truly unprecedented. There's no other way to explain the erasure of 20 million job in two months."

The tangential effects of the health crisis wiped out the previous 10 years of job growth, and the burden fell heavily on women. Not only were women workers concentrated in some of the hardest hit sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and education; they also had to deal with new family responsibilities.

"Women left the job market at four times the rate of men," Richardson said. "There was no daycare, schools were closed, and women bore that cost." She went on to describe how many working women have been facing a generational sandwich situation where they've had to worry about protecting their parents and managing their kids at home simultaneously.

Impact on Different Industries and Workers

Richardson and Romans then shifted the conversation to how different industries and types of workers fared. While women universally faced extra hurdles, low-income women took the biggest hit by far.

"Any support pre-pandemic just collapsed," said Richardson. She explained how this low-wage segment of the workforce has fewer support structures, with many people lacking access to reliable babysitters or having to take public transportation without their own car. That's partly why many of these workers are hesitant to return to their jobs right now, as an extra $1 to $2 an hour isn't enough to justify these hassles.

Richardson did note that one of the bizarre outcomes of the pandemic is that it shrank the wage gap between men and women, with women now earning 82 cents for every dollar earned by men compared to 80 cents before the pandemic. This happened because the women who kept their jobs were more likely to be higher earners who had more resources for childcare and the ability to work from home.

Still, Richardson explained that men tend to come out ahead in recessions. "Men are overrepresented in senior leadership positions that were barely touched by COVID-19," she said. Additionally, she noted that ADP data shows men do better with variable compensation, where pay is negotiable. "Men were more likely to get paid more for taking on more work during the pandemic," Richardson said.

It's not a matter of job choice either, as the gender pay gap holds across all industries, from education to finance.

The Post-COVID Workforce

Looking ahead, Romans asked what employers need to do to attract women back into the workforce. Richardson acknowledged that it's going to be harder to bring back women than men, as women are facing more issues with childcare and wage gaps. She also pointed out that it's not surprising that shortages are happening in low-wage work, saying "no one is talking about a shortage of female CEO candidates."

Ultimately, women need help to come back into the workforce. "The best technology for working women is a reliable babysitter," Richardson noted. Higher wages are a good start, but women workers also need reliable childcare and child healthcare to increase their labor participation rate.

Richardson and Romans both acknowledged that organizations seem to have a better appreciation for the mental health and family needs of their workers. "The way we think about work is changing," Richardson said. "As soon as you had men start leaving work early to pick up the kids, it changed the culture and became more accepted." Progress is being made, but more needs to be done to establish wellness programs for employees and childcare support for families.

Lessons Learned for Employers

The event's opening session wrapped up with a discussion around potential lessons for employers looking to rebuild their workforce and highlight the role of women in economic development. Richardson noted that in an increasingly complex world, it's critical to have a diverse leadership team with women, African American, Latinx and Asian voices represented. "Women and diversity in leadership leads to higher revenues and sales, so why is it still such a hard sell?" she asked.

Having women at higher levels gives them a chance to push real change and impact workers across an entire organization. For employers who are finding it difficult to maintain a diverse pipeline of employees, Richardson and Romans suggested diversifying their hiring supply chain. "Go to different schools, different recruitment venues," Richardson suggested. "The talent has been there all along."

Richardson noted that it could be a bumpy short-term recovery, but she is optimistic thanks to the resilience of women. "Women are used to juggling so much, but they shouldn't have to do it alone," she said. "More than ever, companies are listening and doing what they can to stay attractive." Employers looking to bring in more women workers could consider offering flexible hours or keeping the option to work from home on some days — benefits that can help both men and women.

It's been a rough year for women in the workplace, but as the economy rebuilds, there's hope that this progress will create even better conditions.

Interested in learning what else was discussed during the Summit? You can watch the entire program on demand.