‘The wasted year:’ The impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and their careers

“The wasted year.” That’s how a number of  working women in Utah have described 2020 in a new research report released by Dr. Susan Madsen and the team at the Utah Women and Leadership Project. They surveyed over 3500 women in January 2021. Part one of the research findings looked at the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work addressing “changes, burnout and hope. This second part looks at career advancement challenges for Utah women.

Almost 60% said that this pandemic has affected their career in negative ways – missing out on pay raises, being passed over for promotions – or feeling like they couldn’t accept one, being asked to take on additional work with no additional pay, feeling like they could no longer pursue career and/or educational goals and leaving the workforce completely. For many women, the long-term effects of the last year will ripple forward for the rest of their careers. 

More than 60% of the women experiencing a negative effect on their career advancement said that their career had been put on hold. “I’m so focused on dealing with the daily upheaval that I can’t even comprehend what career advancement experiences would look like. Everything seems to be on hold,” said one respondent. The “wasted year,” said more than 1 in 5. 

The lack of face-to-face time meant fewer opportunities to network, brainstorm, cultivate relationships and engage in mentoring relationships.  One woman wrote,  “I felt that out of sight, out of mind was very evident. I feel that I am very behind now in positioning myself for any sort of advancement.” Another clarified, “Being remote full time, it feels like I am not seen or heard, leading me to feel less valued and less likely to be considered for any other opportunities.”

Increasing workload without increased pay – and increased responsibilities at home – had women feeling like they were “barely surviving.” One teacher described it this way: “It has essentially tripled my workload by having to have in-person classes, curate an online course for the same classes that can be done at home, and hybridize my classes to make them possible to do regardless of situation, with no pay increase.” Another said, “I feel as though when the pandemic hit, the school district I work for decided to use that as an excuse to ‘assign’ more duties without asking and just expecting that ‘people need a job’ so much they’ll do anything. If anything, it has made me want to quit and change career paths beyond anything I can explain.”

“Lost opportunities” was the second major theme to emerge from the research. Women saw their businesses suffer or dry up completely. Many women who had children at home described the additional complexities of juggling schooling kids at home, household chores and paid work.  One woman stated, “I’m more focused on the flexibility offered by my employer than opportunities for advancement. I was a director but took a manager position because I needed to be available more to my children.” Another shared, “I am hesitant to accept opportunities for advancement due to concern that I won’t be able to manage increased responsibilities at work in addition to family responsibilities.” Others put off planned education because of the pandemic. Many described the mental health toll the pandemic has taken. “Barely surviving,” “hopeless,” “no mental space to think beyond the present” and “I don’t have the strength to fight what I perceive as a lost cause.”

The third theme to emerge was reevaluation of one’s career. Almost 1 in 5 said they are reevaluating where they are. For some, it was how their previous industry fared, forcing a change. For others, they realized additional education really was the next step. For others, it was the mental health demands that resulted in feeling burnt out and ready for a change. Some working mothers decided to not return to work and for some, having unsupportive and inflexible employers initiated a change – and not always for the better. One said, “Because of the pandemic and my employer’s response, I am actively seeking new work in a less demanding environment. I anticipate taking a significant pay cut, immediately and over the course of my career as a result.”

Finally, the fourth theme to emerge from thousands of responses was the uniqueness of women’s experiences.  Women face different challenges at work from those of their male counterparts, women of color face different challenges than their white female or male colleagues, and women beginning their careers face different challenges than women in later career stages. One woman described it this way: “My work anxiety with regard to being ‘seen’ and included as a female has risen significantly since the pandemic. I have always felt marginalized, but now this feeling is compacted with a physical distance from leadership as well as the immense need to juggle homeschooling, chores, and the mental health needs of my children with work. I have rarely felt understood by my male bosses, but this gap in empathy is huge right now.” One woman of color said of her experience “I found that my supervisor was less supportive of me, as a woman of color, compared to my peers. I was being overworked, undervalued, and minimized. . . . I was repeatedly told that I should be more positive and optimistic regarding the pandemic and gaslighted when I brought up concerns over my safety and the safety of [my team]. After 6 months of struggling to stand my ground, I chose to resign from my position.”

The research brief concludes that clearly, the pandemic has had a profound effect on women at work. Dr. Madsen and her team offer two recommendations: employers should look at flexible work arrangements, leave policies and childcare support, as well as actively recruiting women who have left the workplace during the pandemic. The second is aimed at public policies at the local and state level and include:  implementing public policies that focus on narrowing the gender pay gap; increasing investment in training and upskilling opportunities that support women, including return-to-work initiatives (the Lt. Governor’s “Returnship” program is a good example of this); offering incentives that encourage businesses to implement family-friendly and inclusive policies; and providing more support for childcare offices and programs around the state.