A Post-Pandemic Look at Women’s Career Sacrifices

When New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her decision to step down from office in January 2023, she certainly received no respite from the stream of sexist attitudes and remarks that she has endured since she was elected in 2017. Yet she only added to her many landmark accomplishments as a head of state by opting to leave her role when she realized that, as a human being who had already given so much of herself to it, she no longer had the inner resources to do it justice. 

In so doing, she may well have chosen a greater degree of personal justice for herself and her new family, which many women struggle to get—or give themselves—permission to do.

Ardern is the first sitting world leader in decades to give birth while holding office, taking a mere six weeks of maternity leave to do so. She has held high-stakes dual roles as a new parent and the leader of a nation, all while remaining constantly in the public eye. The prime minister has additionally shouldered the knowledge that her own balancing act has wide-reaching implications for how people worldwide view the capabilities (and limits) of women as caregivers, earners, and leaders.

The False Dichotomy of Caregiver vs. Superwoman

Even as Ardern receives a mix of public scrutiny and acclaim, women everywhere make far less heralded and equitable sacrifices in their professional and personal lives. Throughout most of history, women have been defined primarily as objects of desire and as caregivers. Today, those with careers face enormous pressure to “do it all”: be successful at work, be excellent mothers and partners, meet unrealistic beauty standards, and more. As a result, many feel obligated to sacrifice their own well-being to prove themselves capable of meeting these expectations.

The concept of women as caregivers is often first introduced to young children in the form of gendered toys—dolls are marketed to girls, while “action-oriented” toys are to boys—and is reinforced in gendered professional representations throughout their lives. Regardless of whether women enjoy being mothers and nurturers, the realities of how such roles work in the US and elsewhere often result in major economic and other losses for them. Women are systemically overworked, underpaid, under-recognized, and under-supported in society. 

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and it’s an excellent time to illuminate the continuing unequal burdens women of all races face with regard to careers and caregiving. The economic and psychological harms of this, along with injustices suffered by other marginalized groups, have been starkly revealed and worsened by the pandemic. Here’s how previously existing disparities combined with the pandemic have caused major setbacks for women’s equality.

Pre-existing Wage and Wealth Gaps

Among the most hard-hitting gender inequities are the gender wage gap and barriers to top-earning professions, which, combined with unpaid caregiving responsibilities, cause women to experience economic insecurity and dependence on higher-earning male partners. Here’s how the numbers stacked up leading into the pandemic:

  • In 2016, American men earned significantly more than women across all industries, with the greatest gap being in company management, the highest-earning and most powerful sector. Here, men made over $30,000 more than women annually.
  • As of 2020, American women made up 67% of the workforce earning only the federal minimum wage, which has stagnated at $7.25 since 2009. Conversely, they made up only 8% of Fortune 500 company CEOs. 
  • Women in just 6 countries (the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, and Spain) earned more than American women. Yet even in Spain’s best-case scenario, women still accounted for only 20% of the top national earners.
  • There are significant wage inequities for women of all races, but race compounds this reality for many. For example, in 2020, Asian women experienced the most severe gap, making about $300 less per week than Asian men.

As a result of all these factors, women in the US:

  • Have less than half the retirement savings that men have
  • Hold two thirds of all student loan debt
  • Experience significantly higher poverty rates than men, with women of color shouldering the heaviest burdens

Until long-term systemic measures correct these disparities, the most practical way for women to bridge financial gaps is to work in lucrative industries and seek career advancement. Yet the reality is that women leaving workforce ranks during the pandemic has caused far more gender setbacks.

The Pandemic’s Toll on Women and “Women-Dominated” Industries

Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 2 million American women have left the workforce, accounting for a staggering 63% of all US job losses between 2020 and 2022. There are many reasons for this, but most can be traced back to common perceptions and representations of women as natural caregivers. 

Job Losses in “Women’s” Industries

The common reference to some industries as “women-dominated”—even in empathetic regard to pandemic layoffs—is misleading, since men continue to hold the most powerful and highest-paid roles in them. More precisely, the heaviest pandemic layoffs occurred in industries where women are disproportionately represented, albeit in lower-tier roles. These include leisure and hospitality, education, health services, child daycare, and retail, many of which involve caregiving-related responsibilities.

Child Caregiving Duties

Other women were effectively pushed out of work to care for their children as daycare centers closed and schools pivoted to online learning. In many cases, this decision was fueled in part by the lower incomes they were earning compared to their male partners. During lockdowns and infection spikes, it was neither practical nor financially rewarding for women to juggle underpaid work with unpaid work, and many were forced into the latter. In addition to lost income, they incurred employment gaps, potentially endangering their future career prospects.

Frontline Worker Burnout

Women make up 77% of US hospital workers and over 85% of registered nurses, but only about a third of high-ranking roles like those of physicians and surgeons. Although hospital workers of all genders suffered severe burnout during the pandemic, women’s suffering was compounded by significantly lower compensation. K-12 teachers also experienced intense burnout, and over 70% of these workers are women as well. In 2020, 1 in 4 women considered leaving the workforce or changing careers due to burnout; in 2021, this number rose to 1 in 3 women.

Support Equality for Women With ARCC

The Anti-Racism Commitment Coalition (ARCC) is an inclusive coalition of dedicated people committed to eradicating race and gender bias throughout our communities, countries, and the world. We work to help and educate people on their transformative journey to anti-racism and feminism by providing access to related support and resources.

You can help us to build a racism- and sexism-free world. Subscribe to receive news and updates about our work. Be sure to check out our newsletters and ARCC of Change podcast series. Show your commitment to anti-racism and feminism by purchasing ARCC merchandise or by making a donation

Join us today!