How Did We Fall into a ‘She-cession’? What Can We Do?

By Sherry M. Adler

Recession, inflation, stagflation — these are terms that fill the pages of textbooks and messages from the media. But there’s a new one. This indicator comes to us by way of the pandemic. It impacts employees and employers. And it doesn’t stop there. It touches families and our whole social fabric. Above all, this sad turn of events is adversely affecting one gender. And this lopsided pummeling, which has reached crisis proportions, needs to be reckoned with now.

Take a deep breath. We’re in a “she-cession.”

No, this is not a typo and don’t rush to Google — it’s not an entry in Merriam-Webster, at least not yet. But it may qualify as word of the year and certainly as major problem of the last two.

‘She-cession’ – What Exactly Is That?

The word “she-cession” — alternately “shecession” — appeared in the New York Times in May 2020 for the first time in its almost 170 years of publishing history. It emanates from a quote: “We should go ahead and call this a ‘shecession.’” This comment comes from C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). According to a post in The Guardian, she coined this term. Its definition and very existence mark another first. That is, it’s the first time that women are bearing the brunt of an economic downturn in this country. For that reason, it’s a “she-cession.”

As proof points, let’s look at the employment numbers. They tell the story, most markedly in 2020 as COVID-19 started to wend a perilous path through the country. IWPR estimates that 11.5 million women incurred a job loss from February to May of that year. On top of that, others vacated the workforce. How many women left on their own volition? Between August and September 2020 alone, 865,000 women quit their jobs.

Men also have suffered on the employment front. But it has not been to the same extent as women during the COVID-19 siege. IWPR describes the difference as “disproportionate,” as in “women have experienced a disproportionate number of job losses since the start of the pandemic.” Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, expresses the disparity graphically: “Covid took a crowbar into gender gaps and pried them open.”

Why More Women Have Exited the Job Market

What accounts for this discrepancy? Much has to do with the roles of women in the workforce. A Quick Figure bulletin from IWPR explains. “Women’s jobs on payroll have declined more than men’s because women are more likely than men to work in the sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Job losses have been severe in Leisure and Hospitality, Education and Health Services.” Women are clustered in other pandemic-pounded industries too. They include Retail Trade and the broad category of Other Services.

But there’s more to it. In addition to legions of women who were pushed out, others dropped out of the labor force on their own accord. They had to quit to manage the myriad responsibilities that befall them. They needed to step in to take care of children furloughed from attending school, receiving education via remote learning, or unable to attend daycare or receive childcare. The list of circumstances and reasons goes on and on.

There’s yet another segment. If women didn’t leave one way or the other, many have been contemplating it. A story in Forbes addresses this issue. It offers the finding from a 2020 McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report that: “1 in 4 women was considering stepping out of the workforce or downshifting their careers.” What would happen if they took those actions? The consultants did the math: a stunning 2 million women would either relinquish their jobs or scale back on their work.

Reversing Progress in Diversity

First here’s some heartening news. Programs to advance diversity and inclusion goals have gained ground. Be mindful though, there’s still a long way to go. Now for a COVID-caused update. The “she-cession” is wiping out many of those advances. The Forbes article noted above reported: “A ‘she-cession’ would not only undo the strides made toward gender diversity in recent years but would jeopardize future progress as well.” It adds that the loss of senior female leaders in the workforce has major repercussions. “A paucity of strong female role models coupled with a loss of female support from senior-level women mentors and allies risks the loss of retaining female talent, particularly among minority women.”

Let’s focus on that last phrase: “particularly among minority women.” The New York Times story referenced earlier — “Why Some Women Call This Recession a ‘Shecession,’” pinpoints the problem. The “Some Women” are minorities. “The scale of the crisis is unlike anything since the Great Depression. And for the first time in decades, this crisis has a predominantly nonwhite, female face.” This correlates largely with the type of jobs many women hold; rather, make that “held.” Many in the industries most heavily impacted by the pandemic are staffed by nonwhite female workers.

IWPR frames this racial and ethnic aspect in its Quick Figure snapshot. “Losses have been particularly severe in high customer contact services sector jobs.” Who dominated the payrolls for these spots? The answer: Black and Latina women. What’s more, these positions rely on in-person customer-facing interactions, where “remote work is much less likely to be an option than in many professional service jobs, which employ a higher share of White women.”

How quickly will these jobs return as the nation moves into recovery mode? The April 2021 employment statistics show a paltry 266,000 jobs added to payrolls overall. “Disappointing” is the word used in The Washington Post report on the numbers. Gains made by women during this period were minimal. This brings us to the intent of the federal government to help get us out of the “she-cession.”

Part of the Solution: Government — Build Back Better for Women

On none other than Mother’s Day 2021, Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce, addressed the “she-cession” on “Face the Nation.” First she commented on the severe effect the pandemic exerted on jobs populated by women. She mentioned related recovery realities. “The number one reason they’re not going back to work is – is fear due to the virus.” There are others. They include lack of childcare and “the fact that schools were closed and many still remain closed hits women harder.”

Then she shifted to the role of government. She referred to President Biden’s directive to his Administration to make “bold moves” to assist Americans in finding jobs. In doing so, she summarized more difficulties women face. They include the demand to “break down some of the barriers necessary to find a job, to have access to the skills they need to get a good job.” She opined that the President’s pending package would address these issues.

A CNN opinion piece seconds this view. Titled “Biden’s plan will help reverse the ‘she-cession.’” It puts forth how the proposed legislation would invest in education, child care, and paid family leave. These actions would pave the way for all people to join/rejoin the workforce. “But even more importantly, it is aimed at helping women, who have fallen even further behind during the pandemic.”

“When American Families Do Well, Our Nation Thrives.” That’s the tagline atop information on the “American Families Plan” site from the White House. The package comprises $1 trillion in investments as well as $800 billion in tax cuts. Recommendations include subsidizing paid caregiving and offering universal benefits to all families with children. In short, it strives to:

  • Make education more affordable and expand opportunity
  • Provide economic security for families
  • Expand tax credits to help workers and families

What Employers Can Do about the ‘She-cession’

It’s all hands onboard to conquer the “she-cession” and strengthen the foundation to avoid future shocks. Companies can pitch in by taking a telescopic view of the requirements of employees, especially those of women in the workforce. Women are among the pandemic’s sorry victims. As such, they are a prime linchpin for the recovery.

The title of a post by BSR states the case: “Companies Can’t Ignore the ‘She-cession’ Created by the COVID.” It starts with a quote from the EU Commissioner for International Partnership. “Stronger engagement on gender equality is key to a sustainable global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and building fairer, more inclusive, more prosperous societies.”

To “ensure a gender-responsive approach,” what does BRS prescribe? Firms should:

  • Accent flexibility and adopt it as the norm
    Employees have a lot of juggling to do at times to balance their professional and personal agenda. So help them. Install policies to enable them to achieve these goals. Examples: telecommuting, part-time schedules, reduced working hours, role sharing, compressed work weeks.
  • Help women get back into the fold
    It’s a long haul from being out of the workforce to returning or joining for the first time. Pave the way via re-entry programs, mentoring and training geared to women. Skills development provides a path to move into higher levels or more technical roles.
  • Foster men to step up and into care
    Boost parity of unpaid care work. Make it easy for men to do their share. Sponsor campaigns informing male employees about this concept and encouraging them to participate. Offer paid paternity and care leave. To learn more, access the Parental Leave Taskforce.
  • Assist survivors of domestic violence
    Victims of domestic violence need aid. Provide services to those at the firm who experience this trauma. Offer paid leave for victims, relocation programs, and information about services in the community.
  • Design policies for at-risk women
    Support women who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. They include women of color, women with disabilities, and those in the LGBTQ community. Strengthen Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion through an “intersectional approach.”
  • Reach out and across to drive a gender-responsive recovery
    Advocate at your company and band together with other firms for this purpose. Invest in care initiatives, lend your voice to conveying equality messages and work with trade and civic organizations to apply a gender-based lens to rise up from the “she-cession.”

More ideas come from “Women Are Quitting: How We Can Curb The ‘She-Cession’ And Support Working Women,” the article noted above from Forbes:

  • Enhance mental health and well-being programming
    Extra burdens on women caused by the pandemic are putting them at risk for “mental and physical burnout.” Acknowledge this state of affairs. Provide empathy and offerings to address the “whole health of employees.”
  • Profile struggles of successful role models
    Women in leadership have not escaped the scourge of COVID. How are they contending with this crisis? What do they advise? Share the experiences and insights from these respected sources to inform and connect with others across the company.
  • Empower men at the company as inclusion champions
    Involve men in this issue. Enlist them to create “a more inclusive and gender-equitable workplace.” A study by Catalyst on “Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives” found that having men sponsor women and act as career-allies “is a vital strategy for addressing entrenched gender bias.”

Finally, What We the People — Employees, Displaced Workers, Job Candidates — Can Do

The “she-cession” has long tentacles. They are strangling the ranks of women far and wide and at all levels. On account of it, many employees may be stretched and stymied to advance their career. Multitudes who lost their jobs or left voluntarily have to gear up. So do those vying to enter the workforce for the first time or re-enter after a lengthy absence. What can this massive segment of talent do to enhance their career odds?

Gilda Carle, Ph.D. knows. An organizational and relationship expert, performance coach, and author, she has been sharing her wisdom with firms, students, and individuals — notably women — through the years. Her latest book Amplify Your Media Presence, Amplify Your Brand provides a roadmap on how to, as she says, “become your most successful megaphone.”

Vital strategies she proposes to use and ingrain at this time and going forward include:

  • Be your own best friend
    Like yourself. Believe in your talents. Be comfortable and content, appreciative of who you are and what you contribute. Project that image to others, such as colleagues and potential employers during interviews. Radiate that quality and, the chances are, others will like you. What you project, others reflect.
  • Think of yourself as a brand
    A maxim to adopt in your business and personal life is to “sell yourself and everything attached to you.” How? Accent the positive about who you are and what you represent. “Star in your own commercial.”
  • Enumerate the benefits you bring to the table
    Do an in-depth personal assessment. Think about your wide-ranging abilities — don’t take anything for granted. Then formulate a running inventory and keep it ready to go. In this way, you “underscore your uniqueness.”
  • Sharpen your communications and body language skills
    It’s not enough to master these initial steps. You have to deliver them artfully to get your essence and points across. Use the S-O-F-A approach. S is for smile, O for open posture, F for forward lean toward your listener, and A for acknowledge your listener by, for example, nodding at times to show engagement.
  • Deflect your nervousness by focusing on your power
    Quit thinking about your problems. Substitute this limiting mindset with a constructive one about your capabilities. This lesson requires practice. Stop fretting and instead continuously review your easily forgotten power sources and how you can best apply them.
  • Refresh your hair and makeup
    Clothing designers update their product line at least annually. Do the same. Mix and match. Cut and style. Stay current and chic. Have fun with this process so that you are poised to walk the red carpet when called for an interview. “Sharpen your attractor factor.”
  • Formulate content for two crucial questions
    Prepare responses in advance and vary or add information on an ongoing basis. They are: I want to be known for expertise in (what area or areas)? I want to be known for solving this problem (which one or ones)? Back these up with brief cases and compelling illustrations.
  • Weigh your options
    Another angle to consider is freelancing, applying for freelance-to-permanent positions or working as a “permalancer.” A good route for exploring these and other options is through Creative Circle. This nationwide recruiting firm specializes in placing creative talent and digital marketing professionals with clients of all kinds.

Looking Ahead

At the time of this writing, COVID vaccinations are mounting and quieting the pandemic. It’s not an all or nothing scenario as the disease and variants still are rampant. However, reopening and recovery is afoot. It’s not a quick fix, but rather a gradual inching up with tenuous footing. The “she-cession” will take time to “she-cease.” It’s of value to understand the fallout and ways out of it. Efforts of many should help bring us back to growth.


About the author.
You name it, she covers it. That’s the can-do attitude Sherry M. Adler brings to the craft of writing. A polished marketing and communications professional, she has a passion for learning and the world at large. She uses it plus the power of words to inform and energize stakeholders of all kinds. And to show how all of this can make a difference, she calls her business WriteResults NY, LLC