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International Women's Day 2021 marks a year of challenges for women

Women and work: Staying in the workforce
Women and work: Staying in the workforce during the pandemic 05:32

A year ago, Lauri Deason said her career as a screenwriter and producer was nearing a breakthrough. She and her husband, who own their own production company, were on the verge of signing a deal to create a series of films. She had recently finished graduate school and was teaching film to college students. 

"I was really right there, on the summit, and as I was planting the flag, here comes COVID," she recalled. 

As the pandemic swept across the country, the deal fell through and Deason's freelance clients dried up. Because her family's income essentially evaporated within weeks, her husband returned to work in his prior career in aviation, where he's picked up work as a pilot for charter flights and delivering everything from COVID-19 tests to mail. While that's helped them regain some income, it's also placed most of the household duties on Deason, such as helping their 10-year-old daughter with remote schooling. 

"I'm more educated than he is; I have a master's degree," she reflected. "But he can still make more than I can. The economics fall on him, the rest falls on me."

Deason, who lives in Glendale, California, is just one of millions of women whose careers have been upended since the pandemic shut down the economy a year ago. And for many women, this year's International Women's Day on March 8 may come with a sense of disappointment and irony, given the day is meant to celebrate women's achievement and the narrowing of the gender gap. 

Just months before the pandemic hit, women had crossed a major threshold as they had become the majority of job holders in the U.S. Women in the workforce helped boost household income and also fueled the economic expansion before the pandemic. Since then, millions of women have suffered a big reversal, with nearly 3 million American women leaving the workforce, partly due to layoffs in industries that traditionally employ women, but also because of sudden demands of caretaking.

"I remember last year being much more of a celebratory day," said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. "Monday will be a more somber day, especially on the economic side."

The economic pain felt by women in the past year doesn't only have implications for those individuals and their households, but the entire nation, economists have warned. If women don't return to the workforce at the rate they were employed prior to the pandemic, U.S. GDP and income "would be permanently lower," the Congressional Research Service cautioned in a December research report. 

In a statement on Monday, President Joe Biden said he is ordering the creation of the White House Gender Policy Council to "ensure that every domestic and foreign policy we pursue rests on a foundation of dignity and equity for women." He added, "Around the world, we are seeing decades of women's economic gains erased by this pandemic." 

Women of color

The pandemic's hit to women's careers has been hardest on women of color and low-earning women, partly because they hold a greater share of service jobs that felt a deeper impact from the pandemic, such as retail or hospitality jobs.

"In the United States, there's a clear gender story here, but in the aggregate, it's not about white women," noted Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, in a blog post. "Black and Hispanic women experienced the most significant and disproportionate job losses in the pandemic recession."

Vice President Kamala Harris last month described the millions of women who have left the workforce as a "national emergency." The Biden administration, for its part, has included some measures that may help some women regain their economic footing, such as an expanded Child Tax Credit that would provide $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for those between 6 to 17. 

The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on long-running structural issues, ranging from lower earnings for women of color to a lack of affordable childcare across the nation. But it would be a mistake to consider these issues as problems that only impact women, said Jennifer Barrett, chief education officer at financial services company Acorns and the author of the forthcoming book "Think Like a Breadwinner," which is geared toward women who want to build wealth and income.

But the impact of the pandemic has also been felt keenly by one group of women: Those with school-age children. With most schools switching to remote learning, parents found themselves taking on hands-on roles as educators and tech support specialists for their children. Many of those duties fell to mothers, with some reshaping their lives to handle the heavier childcare load. 

One of those is Antonia Flynn, a voice actor, who has temporarily moved from California to her parent's home in Pennsylvania with her two children, ages 6 and 9. Because her husband, who works in television production, is often away for long periods, she needed additional backup from her parents in order to continue working on voice projects because her children are still in remote school. 

"When the pandemic wasn't going on it was hard enough to keep the home fires burning," Flynn noted. "Now, cut to they are doing school at home, so basically I had to come here. It's still a juggling act," but, she added, easier than trying to juggle work and remote schooling without backup.

Opportunity for positive change

Positives could emerge from the pandemic, such as greater support for paid family leave and subsidized childcare, as well as more honest discussions between men and women about the division of household duties, experts say. 

"I truly believe that we have this opportunity right now to have these discussions to start to shift the way we think about caregiving as being uniquely suited for women, but something that everyone should and can do," Barrett noted.

The potential upside was stressed by veteran feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem, who spoke to CBS News about International Women's Day.

"Studies show women have suffered more anxiety, depression and trauma during this pandemic, because we have more responsibility for others and are brought up to be more empathetic," Steinem said. "On the other hand, men have been more at home with families this year, so let's hope this narrows the empathy gap."

Elisa Pupko, who runs a children's theatrical arts program in Brooklyn, New York, called Treasure Trunk Theater, said the pandemic has shifted her family's dynamics, with her, her husband and 3-year-old daughter spending more time together at home. For many families, Pupko added, that's opened men's eyes to how much work goes into childcare and housework. 

"If we allow ourselves to be the default parent, it's not healthy for the whole family," Pupko said. "I've learned to let him know, 'Can you load the dishwasher –  I have to work after dinner, because I haven't had a chance to work all day."

Less willing to ask for a raise

The pandemic has also impacted women's behavior within the workforce, with new research from the Indeed Hiring Lab finding that women are less willing to ask for a raise than men during the crisis. 

"Certainly there has been tremendous progress in workplace equity, specially compared with the 1950s and 1960s," said Konkel of Indeed. "There may be the feeling, 'I don't want to be difficult right now. Everyone is struggling, so I don't want to rock the boat," she said of the greater share of women who aren't comfortable asking for a pay hike.

But that could pose long-term threats to women's financial stability and ability to retire comfortably, since a missed raise could snowball into lower lifetime earnings, she noted. One potential upside, she added, is that 8 in 10 women say they're comfortable with asking for workplace flexibility, compared with 7 in 10 women prior to the pandemic. 

"Flexibility will be key to watch in the coming months or years," Konkel added. "Is everyone offered flexibility or is it a select few and will that create more labor market inequalities?"

As for Deason, the screenwriter and producer, she said she's optimistic even though there are tough days. 

"With COVID and what has happened, that big reversal, it really feels like the end for so many women," she said. "The end of my dreams, the end of equality, the reversal of everything we were fighting for."

But she views the crisis in screenplay terms and that women are at the point in the film where it looks like all hope is lost. Added Deason, "It's not the end of the story. It's only the end if we let go of our goals."

— With reporting by Pamela Falk.

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