While it’s always important to celebrate and support the female-led businesses in our communities, celebrating the 2021 International Women’s Day feels particularly poignant. That’s because the unprecedented events of 2020 have taken such a toll on all of the slow but steady gains that female entrepreneurs and business owners have been making over the last several decades. This year the official International Women’s Day website has set the hashtag #ChooseToChallenge as its 2021 campaign theme, calling attention to the power of challenge to create change—and a more inclusive world. The United Nations has set its International Women’s Day theme as “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” in testament to the many additional hurdles women business owners have had to overcome during the pandemic, and as a rallying cry for helping them regain the ground lost as we move into 2021.
A series of recent studies have shown that the coronavirus pandemic hit women especially hard. Though the virus itself seemed to hit women less severely on a physical level, on both a career and personal level it was disastrous. According to a 2020 study, 54% percent of those who were laid off or otherwise lost their jobs during the pandemic were women, and those numbers remain high even as jobs return this year. And more than half of female business owners reported a significant drop in the overall health of their business in a recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to the stressors and challenges that we’ve all had to face because of the pandemic, women have found themselves disproportionately navigating new familial roles or just taking on much more domestic work than they did previously—even those with long-term partners. Many women reported a sharp increase in the amount of housework they did during the pandemic and found themselves in charge of homeschooling or coordinating the remote school schedules of their children. Still others ended up unexpectedly caring for ill or elderly relatives. Women also served their community at a higher rate during this stressful time, as evidenced in an increased number of women volunteering time to those in need.
All of these roles were often taken on in addition to the usual career duties, which many women now had to navigate remotely. Of those who didn’t have the option of being remote, women hold a disproportionate number of lower-income service and retail jobs that were deemed essential, which meant that they were more vulnerable to being exposed to the virus. Many reported that the last year in lockdown felt a bit like going back to the 1950s and expressed concern with statistics that pointed to women’s salaries returning to normal at a much slower rate than men.
Although the pandemic has exposed lingering inequalities that women still face, both at home and in the workplace, it has also exposed the importance of women’s contributions in both of these areas. While these dual burdens can often make it difficult to reach and retain leadership positions in a business setting, they also clearly show women’s leadership capabilities and the ability to juggle multiple competing tasks at once. These setbacks have also given many women more motivation to push back against unfair expectations and move forward in creating new, more equitable opportunities for themselves and for others, both at home and in the business world.
According to the UN: “Women leaders and women’s organizations have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and networks to effectively lead in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. Today there is more acceptance than ever before that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all.”
Women-owned businesses make up 40% of businesses in America, and the number of women in leadership positions continues to grow. Women business leaders and entrepreneurs are a vital part of a thriving business ecosystem and have continued to innovate, bring new perspectives, and provide an important voice to business we cannot afford to lose.
With several new COVID-19 vaccines currently in deployment around the world, everyone is hopeful that life can return to something close to normal at some point this year. Hopefully, as these changes take place, as schools start to reopen, and as the danger for the elderly and those most vulnerable to the virus declines, the women leaders who have been working so hard to do it all will not be forgotten.
It’s imperative that we not only take steps to ensure that women-run enterprises get back to where they were before the virus, but also that they continue to thrive and make gains. The business community must rally around its female leaders and do all that it can to support female entrepreneurs and small business owners, as we all work together to make a more diverse and equitable business ecosystem a reality. Though the world may never return to exactly the way it was before the pandemic, with some work and commitment we can see to it that it is rebuilt better, stronger, and more fulfilling for all.
Lynn Brown is a Black journalist and educator who specializes in creating education, culture and history content for media outlets, nonprofits, and small businesses. Visit her online at literarylynn.com.