The president and CEO of the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (and keynote speaker for 2021 Women’s SEEN), Dr. C. Nicole Mason, weighs in on how the pandemic has affected women — and where we go from here
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
Photography by Erin Kirkland
When C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., joined the Institute of Women’s Policy Research last fall, she had no idea that the causes her organization has been dedicated to for more than 30 years — pay equity, income security, economic policies and other issues affecting women — were about to be thrust into the national spotlight like never before. Cue the pandemic.
“I remember telling the staff, ‘If there was ever a moment for an organization like ours, this is it,’” says Mason, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to women-centered, policy-oriented research. “Many of the issues we worked on as an organization that seemed really abstract all came into focus. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for because there’s so much public awareness [of the challenges women face].
Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, with more than 2.3 million of them exiting the U.S. workforce since February 2020, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. By comparison, only 1.8 million men left during that same period.
Mothers have been hit especially hard. A study from consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that 23% of women with children under 10 were considering leaving the workforce due to the pandemic, versus 13% of men. Reasons include school and daycare shutdowns and increased responsibility at home: Mothers that are part of a dual-career couple are twice as likely as fathers to spend more than five hours a day on household chores than they were before the pandemic.
Mason coined a term for this exodus and its subsequent impact: “Shecession.” “We wanted to articulate the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on women in terms of job and income loss and underscore that it wasn’t the same as the recession in 2008 [when men lost the majority of jobs],” she says. “There’s power in framing the narrative. When you define the problem you can find solutions.”
To that end, Mason, a mother of 11-year-old twins, sees this time as an opportunity for transformation. First, we’re having conversations as a society that “a year ago wouldn’t have been possible,” she says, including those around workplace flexibility, childcare, job security, paid sick leave and more. “Last year you would have gotten laughed out [of the office] if you said, ‘I want to work full-time from home and do all my meetings by computer.’ Now we understand it’s possible to have a full-time job with benefits and flexibility and be able to take care of your family.”
Still, there’s a long way to go, and Mason points to several issues we as a nation need to address, among them pay inequity (women across sectors — including those that are female-dominated — earn less than men); the burden of childcare; and lack of paid sick leave and benefits, especially for women in lower-wage jobs. Still, the burden isn’t only on women to fight for change. “I think we need to shift who’s responsible for it, in the same way we think about racial discrimination,” Mason says. “Black people and people of color are leading the discussion but they’re not perpetrating racism against themselves. Women are responsible for the majority of care, but sexism is not making itself. Hopefully men can join and do the work with us.
Government policies that prioritize the aforementioned issues above would help, Mason says, but the private sector — which makes determinations about hiring, flexibility and pay level — has a large role to play. “When women started to enter the workforce in significant numbers, we were like, ‘We’re gonna do it all!’ but the system was never set up for us to do that,” she says. “In this moment, we have the opportunity to create everything anew. That could shift so much and do so much for women’s power and influence.”