Entrepreneur Explains How the Pandemic Has Affected Women in the Workplace
The culmination of extensive research done on the COVID-19 virus and the current availability of vaccines has allowed many organizations to begin their transition planning back into an office or central working environment.
While many companies are deciding on if they will include remote or hybrid working options, the overall effects of the pandemic are still present, and implications could remain for years to come. Many women voluntarily or involuntarily left the workforce completely, and others were forced to juggle intense stress from work, family and childcare demands.
BioSpace recently interviewed Elizabeth Elting, founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, to discuss her thoughts on how the pandemic has affected women in the workforce. She was able to share her perspective as the founder and former co-CEO of TransPerfect, along with her predictions based on recent trends.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background before becoming an entrepreneur?
My parents taught me from a young age to value my independence and work hard for the things I want in life. And I was fortunate to grow up living, studying and working all over the world—Venezuela, Spain, Portugal, Canada and the U.S.—all by the time I was 21.
Those experiences fostered in me both an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of languages (a combination that shaped my career). I studied modern languages at Trinity and then earned my MBA from NYU Stern. Shortly after getting my business degree, I had a frustrating new job experience that ultimately led me to start my own company. I was working as a broker at a big French bank, but despite my job title, I was tasked with taking notes, making coffee and answering the phone; I was treated like an assistant, rather than a peer. I knew I could do better for myself on my own.
I had identified a gap in the translation industry (there was a lack of comprehensive services for companies looking to do business internationally), and in 1992, I launched my company out of an NYU dorm room to tackle it. During my time as co-CEO, I grew that dorm room startup into the world’s largest language solutions company, with over $600 million in revenue, 5,000+ employees, 11,000+ clients and offices in more than 90 cities around the globe, and recognition as the industry standard.
I left in 2018 and fully committed myself to my philanthropy and advocacy with the launch of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation. Our mission is to lift up women and other marginalized people and underserved communities through a variety of initiatives—from business to public health to education, venture funds and scholarships—including helping women succeed in business and working with the AHA to advance women’s cardiac health education and research.
2. How did you decide to start the Elizabeth Elting Foundation? Did you think of it as a second phase of your career?
In as much of my career has gone from being primarily about earning to primarily about giving, I think it’s fair to call that a second act. I’m fortunate enough to have had a successful career that’s given me resources I can put to work. My passion comes from the simple belief that those who can help should help.
I was raised to be very conscious of having resources that others don’t and to believe there is a moral charge, if not an obligation, to put those resources to good use. It seems like a no-brainer to me; we live in a society, a civilization, and everything I have I was able to build because of the vast cooperative network of private, public and non-profit organizations and individuals who have together constructed this massive infrastructure of movement and communication and finance. Literally nobody pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps. Even if you did, someone had to make those boots.
When I left my company, I knew what I wanted to do was dedicate myself fully to my philanthropy and advocacy. The first thing I did was launch a charitable foundation to bring those values to life and create opportunities for women and other marginalized communities to find their own paths to success, where they could contribute to this amazing human project in a lasting way with the dignity of full recognition. COVID-19 cracked open our structural gaps and forced us to refocus our efforts, but the mission remains the same: to make sure underserved communities have resources needed to thrive, whether in systemic terms or, in the case of COVID-19, in immediate terms.
3. How do you think the pandemic has/will affect women in the workplace?
This is the first recession in history to hit women harder than men; over the last twelve months, 2.3 million women departed the workforce, bringing our level of participation to the lowest it’s been in over thirty years. The cost of this lost economic independence is staggering: increased likelihood of child poverty, increased likelihood of domestic abuse and steep declines in lifetime earnings all follow when women step back from the economy, as women are more likely to be single parents or financially dependent on their partners. Careers have been derailed and destroyed as mothers struggle to balance working at home with the burdens of housework and childcare.
While much of this decline is due to the pandemic hitting industries dominated by women—like hospitality, retail and childcare—particularly hard, it isn’t the whole picture, and we’ve been witnessing our deliberate sidelining in real time.
Across the country, women were told in tones ranging from friendly concern to venomous that we were spread too thin, and if we couldn’t focus solely on work—over, say, raising our children, maintaining our homes, or any of the countless other thankless tasks once called “women’s work” in polite company and not even just behind our backs—we’d be out of a job. Florida State University attracted significant backlash for making this a formal policy last summer, but management across the land has had these conversations, too.
And to compound this issue, women are often viewed as less committed and more expendable than their male counterparts when companies have to let employees go. If you have to cut someone, cut the person with kids to raise, the thinking apparently goes.
Further, the pandemic has taken a far greater toll on the mental health of women than on men; women are more likely to report pandemic burnout and a decline in quality of life, according to Gallup, and the news has been replete with stories for over a year now about the additional burdens the pandemic has unequally lain on the shoulders of women. Women, we’ve seen again and again, have been disproportionately expected to juggle housework and childcare (including managing remote learning), even if they’re working full time. That burnout, that stress, cannot remain forever, and thus we see the decline in women’s participation in the U.S. workforce. Something, inevitably, had to give.
4. What do you think are some of the larger implications of many women leaving the workplace to provide their own child care?
Well, the knock-on effects are going to be long-lasting; fewer women in hiring positions means fewer women getting hired; large gaps in resumes demonstrably results in lower lifetime earning potential and lower starting salaries, which also increases the incidence of child poverty with the resulting declines in academic and career performance. Reduced workforce participation among women, simply put, reduces the opportunities for economic independence and advancement for all women.
It also happens to be bad for business and for the economy at large, both of which suffer with fewer women in their ranks.
Up and down, the pandemic has reinforced traditional gender roles, shunting women back into the role of homemaker, a role that we’ve historically faced immense difficulty escaping. We have fewer women in the promotion pipeline than we did a year ago and fewer women in hiring and decision-making roles. It’s going to be rough reclaiming what we’ve lost. Our salaries will take years to recover, resulting in a loss of lifetime earning potential for women as a class that will reverberate for decades to come.
5. Have you noticed any new trends or changes with women in the workplace?
Hiring continues to lag far behind our male counterparts, and as long as these conditions continue, the labor market will not fully recover. I keep seeing all of these people talk about how “nobody wants to work” in fast food anymore “because of unemployment checks.” But the fast food workforce was over 50% women before the pandemic, and that’s a demographic that is right now, as a whole, not readily able to pursue employment in the same numbers as men, nor who are incentivized to do so without higher wages or improved health and childcare benefits. There is a huge gap that the pandemic has lain bare between what men need in order to work and what women need, and as long as we don’t address that, we cannot expect things to return to the way they were before.
6. What advice would you give to a woman who wants to eventually start her own business or non-profit?
Just do it. Chase after your dreams, do what scares you. Starting a business is always going to be risky—this of course is especially true today—but it gives you the power to shape your own destiny in a way very few other things can.
One of my mantras has always been: get out of your comfort zone and keep pushing. Push until you can’t push anymore. Push yourself further than you know how to push yourself. There are reserves of strength in us that only come out when we need them; challenges force us to grow, adversity can fuel greatness, and if we keep moving forward, our setbacks will only make us stronger.
While we found ourselves in very scary and tough times, it holds true that big challenges demand even bigger solutions, and adversity fuels innovation. Get out there and be a part of the solution!
Porschia Parker-Griffin is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
Liz Elting is Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, Founder and former Co-CEO of TransPerfect.