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What Can We Learn from the Current ‘She-cession’?

Business Prof. Beth Humberd Examines Impact on Working Women in Innovation Hub Webinar

Associate Professor of Management Beth Humberd
Assoc. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd says the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the interdependent nature of support structures that are relied on by dual-career families and single working parents.

11/25/2020
By Ed Brennen

Erin Padilla kept hearing about the “she-cession” — the term used to describe how the current recession is having a disproportionate effect on women’s employment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So when Padilla saw that Beth Humberd, an associate professor of management in the Manning School of Business, would be examining the causes and impacts of the she-cession in a webinar hosted by the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, she made sure to attend.

“I’ve watched female colleagues and family members adjust their work lives for various reasons since the pandemic, and it’s made me a little nervous about the larger picture for women in the workforce right now,” said Padilla, the programs and operations director for Creative Haverhill, a nonprofit organization that supports arts and culture.

Padilla was among more than 100 community members, alumni, faculty, staff and students who attended the recent Zoom session, which was sponsored by Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union.

Humberd, an expert in how parenting affects career success for women and men, said the she-cession is derailing steady gains that women have made in the U.S. workforce since 1950. The number of full-time working women declined by more than 2.2 million between February and October. In September alone, 865,000 women left the workforce or were laid off, compared to 216,000 men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The share of women in the workforce right now is down to levels we have not seen since 1988,” said Humberd, who noted that the sectors hit hardest early in the pandemic, including retail, restaurants and hospitality, overwhelmingly employ women. That’s made this recession the first to affect more women than men, she said.

The problem is only compounded because many of the support systems for dual-career couples and single working parents — like child care, school, summer camp and even babysitting grandparents — have all but vanished during the pandemic, Humberd said.

“We’ve come to recognize that all of our systems are very interdependent,” said Humberd, who compared it to a game of Jenga. “Everything was neatly held together. But if you pull out one Jenga block, one of those systems isn’t held together anymore. Maybe we took for granted how interdependent all of those systems were.”
Beth Humberd presents a slide on Zoom
"The share of women in the workforce right now is down to levels we have not seen since 1988," Assoc. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd told attendees of her webinar on the "she-cession," hosted by the Innovation Hub.

If one parent needs to quit their job to stay home with the kids, Humberd said it tends to be the mother.

“Women and men alike still tend to generally associate women more with caregiving and household work, and men with professional and external work,” she said. “These gender expectations we have are sticky. They’re hard to change.”

And with women earning just 81 cents to every dollar that men make, Humberd said it also becomes an economic decision for families “if someone’s career needs to take a back seat.”

“In times of crisis, existing inequalities exacerbate,” said Humberd, who added that Black and Hispanic women have been hit even harder by the downturn.

While the trends are troubling for working women, Humberd also highlighted some silver linings that have emerged during the pandemic.

“One is that we’ve really ripped off the Band-Aid with flexible and remote work,” she said. “We now have the building blocks to figure out how to be more flexible in the way that we expect people to work.”

Another is that women who leave the workforce to raise kids or care for aging parents may find it easier to resume their careers without having to explain the break in their résumé.

“A lot of time has been spent coaching women on how to explain breaks in their careers. That’s no longer going to be this odd-duck story,” Humberd said.

Since everyone has been affected by the global pandemic, Humberd said there may be a greater openness on the part of organizations to better support not only working women, but all employees.

“The boundaries have collapsed for everyone — men, women, old, young, hourly, salaried. We are all experiencing this,” she said. “It’s on all of us to use this as a springboard — and for leaders and organizations especially — to figure out a way through this that can lead to more effectiveness for organizations and the workforce.”

In the meantime, Humberd suggested strategies that working women can take to get through the pandemic: ask for help and clarity from managers; don’t be afraid to say no to extra responsibilities — but also say yes when possible; and have open conversations.  

“And be grateful, but struggle,” Humberd said. “We’ve all had this experience where we’re struggling, but we think, ‘At least I have a job,’ or, ‘At least my children are older,’ or, ‘At least my spouse is working. There’s somebody who has it worse.’ That doesn’t negate that in our own situations, we’re still struggling.”

Padilla, for one, appreciated Humberd’s message.

“She helped me understand the reality of the current situation, while keeping the conversation hopeful,” Padilla said. “Maybe some of the changes that have had to happen as a result of the pandemic will make the workforce more accessible to women moving forward.”