Last week, in one of Vice President’s Kamala Harris’s first addresses to the United States public, she announced that the U.S. economy cannot fully recover unless women can rejoin the workforce and fully participate. The Vice President declared the high rate of women leaving their jobs was nothing short of a national emergency. According to the Center for American Progress, over the course of the first 10 months of the pandemic, women — particularly women of color — have lost more jobs than men. Why? Industries dominated by women have been hit the hardest during the pandemic. Overall, women have lost nearly one million more jobs than men, yielding a net loss of 5.4 million jobs during the recession. In December, all of women’s job losses were sustained by Black, Hispanic, and Asian women; 154,000 Black women dropped out of the labor force entirely.
During this time of economic turmoil, one consistent trend has been the disproportionate impact of job loss on women. As of January 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 275,000 women had left the workforce, compared to the much smaller number of 71,000 men. This staggering ratio serves as a call to action due to our nation’s failure to address long standing systemic workplace inequities: deficient policies regarding equal pay, inadequate family-friendly policies, lack of investment in childcare, and few social safety nets. Simply put, the data demonstrate that when the persisting workplace practices were put to the test, women found it untenable to stay in their jobs.
The statistics are distressing, but it is in individual lives that this inequity is borne out. One exception to this rule, however, was found when women start and run their own businesses — a bright spot among the statistics. Increasingly, the way women have found to balance their dual responsibilities of caring for their children and older family members with their need to work has been to start their own businesses. Pre-COVID-19, in 2019, 40% percent of all small businesses were owned by women — a growth rate that is 114% over the past 20 years. By 2020, 50% of women-owned businesses were owned and started by women of color, and 64% of new women-owned businesses were started by women of color. This growing trend can yield the flexibility and autonomy needed for working women to create a safe, stable, and vibrant family life. Facing significant barriers to the kind of work they could pursue, many initially were limited to dressmaking, haircare, private home domestic work, or midwifery. White women often began their own businesses at the time they gained a small inheritance or when they were able to continue to run a family business.
After WWII, and into the 50s and 60s, women began working from their homes in start-ups like Mary Kay Cosmetics, or Tupperware, which , donned the slogan, “Women’s Plastic Path to Empowerment,” allowing women to augment family incomes, or in some cases become sole providers for their families. These businesses, while powered by female workers, were owned and operated by men.
As more women entered the mainstream workforce, women’s earnings in 1979 were still 55 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. That earning ratio, combined with the need to perform both roles as a caretaker and paid worker, made starting their own business an attractive alternative for women.
By 2020, when women constituted approximately 50% of the total workforce, a White woman still earned only 81 cents for every dollar earned by a White man, for the same work. For American Indian and Alaska Native women, Black women and Latina women, these discrepancies grow even more staggering. On average, women of color earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by a White man performing equivalent work. The COVID pandemic has exposed many societal inequities, among them is the evidence that today’s workplace is hostile to working women who also serve as society’s primary caretakers. The policies and practices that have historically inhibited women’s advancement are alive and (not) well in this COVID prevalent environment.
On the SouthCoast, women’s businesses have contributed to the instrumental growth and rebuilding of the downtown New Bedford economy. Clothing shops, restaurants, art galleries and yoga studios, to name a few, have women at the helm presenting a strong and visible foothold in the transformation of the city. Our patronage can help them and our local economy directly, at a time when many of us feel out of control to help more globally.
Supporting our local businesses has a direct and positive impact on our own community. Many businesses are now open by appointment to drive revenue and make a profit. Restaurants are creating dynamic ways, beyond delivery, to attempt to reach pre-COVID numbers. Patronizing these local businesses means local women and men are stepping up to help local women and men. Next time, before punching the Amazon button, consider an alternative solution. In addition to being a good neighbor, you will be building a more stable future, one purchase at a time.
Vice President Harris’ warning is true: Women-owned businesses have become a driving force in the larger American economy. Making sure they succeed constitutes an important aspect to our overall economic recovery.