‘The wasted year’: How the pandemic impacted the careers of many Utah women

Sarah Warren reads to her daughter, Raya, from a school worksheet while doing online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sara Warren helps her daughter, Raya Warren, 6, with her classwork during online learning kindergarten in their living room in St. Louis Park, Minn., on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Warren is a working mother who had to walk away from her job early in the pandemic after her daughter’s daycare facility was forced to close down. She has returned to work and is currently working from home and simultaneously helping her daughter with school. | Jenn Ackerman, for the Deseret News

“The wasted year.” That’s how a number of working women in Utah have described 2020 in a new research report released by Dr. Susan Madsen and the team at the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

Michelle McCullough calls it “the great pause.” An in-demand public speaker, consultant and trainer, she lost tens of thousands of dollars of income in two weeks when all of her scheduled events were canceled. A self-described planner and goal-setter, she had her plans for 2020 carefully laid out. This year, she doesn’t even know if it’s “safe” to plan. “Can I set goals?” she wondered. “Am I allowed to plan?”

Nearly 60% of the 3,500 women surveyed by Madsen and her team said the pandemic has affected their career in negative ways. They described missing out on pay raises, being passed over for promotions — or feeling like they couldn’t accept a promotion — being asked to take on additional work with no additional pay, feeling like they could no longer pursue career and/or educational goals and leaving the workforce completely.

The lack of face-to-face time meant fewer opportunities to network, brainstorm, cultivate relationships and engage in mentoring relationships. One woman who responded to the survey wrote, “I felt that out of sight, out of mind was very evident. I feel that I am very behind now in positioning myself for any sort of advancement.” Another clarified, “Being remote full time, it feels like I am not seen or heard, leading me to feel less valued and less likely to be considered for any other opportunities.”

“Lost opportunities” was another major theme to emerge from the research. Women like McCullough saw their businesses suffer or dry up completely. Many women who had children at home described the additional complexities of juggling schooling kids at home, household chores and paid work. One woman stated, “I’m more focused on the flexibility offered by my employer than opportunities for advancement. I was a director but took a manager position because I needed to be available more to my children.” Another shared, “I am hesitant to accept opportunities for advancement due to concern that I won’t be able to manage increased responsibilities at work in addition to family responsibilities.”

 Michelle McCoullough
Michelle McCullough called the last year of the pandemic and its impact on working women, especially moms, “the great pause.” Like many moms, her career took a step back when she had to step in as her children’s teacher.

Like many working mothers, especially at the beginning of the shutdown, McCullough had to wear multiple hats. She shared that she loves being a mom and she loves her children, but she did not love being her children’s teacher. “I happily pay my taxes, so someone else can teach them,” she said. But, she made the pivot to homeschooling them for the reminder of the 2020 school year. Not only did she lose speaking opportunities in 2020, but she found that her typical clients, themselves small-business owners, continue to be plagued by uncertainty. Her business coaching is typically a 12-month program, but a year is just too much to commit to right now.

The third theme to emerge was reevaluation of one’s career. Almost 1 in 5 said they are reevaluating where they are. For some, it was how their previous industry fared, forcing a change. For others, they realized additional education really was the next step. For others, it was the mental health demands that resulted in feeling burnt out and ready for a change. Some working mothers decided to not return to work and for some, having unsupportive and inflexible employers initiated a change — and not always for the better. One said, “Because of the pandemic and my employer’s response, I am actively seeking new work in a less demanding environment. I anticipate taking a significant pay cut, immediately and over the course of my career as a result.”

McCullough had to pivot her career away from public speaking. While she doesn’t know what the impacts will be long term, it is clear that there are short-term impacts. Her family is no longer planning on buying a new home, in a combination of less income and soaring home prices. If her speaking business does come back, it’s likely to take time to rebuild those relationships, and time for corporations to move back into hiring speakers. There is also the mental aspect — the uncertainty, the wondering if is “allowed” to plan and the “survivor guilt.” “I know that other people have it worse than I do,” she said, “so it’s been hard that it’s been hard.” She said she is still trying to find her footing, after feeling like she had the rug pulled out from under her.

Madsen’s research brief concludes that clearly, the pandemic has had a profound effect on women at work. People like Michelle McCullough are living that reality every day.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy Daily and a Deseret News columnist.

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