Leading Fearlessly: After the ‘she-cession,’ women are back at work and shaping their own futures

Published by Suzanna de Baca on

When the pandemic hit in 2020, I remember reading the media headlines warning of a “she-cession,” or mass exodus of women from the workforce. I witnessed this firsthand as countless women I knew quit their jobs, exhausted from bearing a disproportionate burden of juggling responsibilities at work and home. Many of us feared that decades of economic progress for women would be erased. But there is good news: Despite that massive exit, new data indicate that women are back at work, more ambitious than ever, and shaping their own futures.

According to the Mom Project, 1.8 million women left the workforce due to the pandemic. But a Recruitics article says that by January 2023, the number of women in the workforce had returned to pre-pandemic levels. One unexpected outcome of these shifts in the workforce is that the gender gap actually narrowed; women have surpassed the number of men in the labor force. The Pew Research Center data shows that women now make up 51% of the U.S. workforce 25 and older with a college degree.

Rather than permanently holding women back, it seems that the “she-cession” was not just temporary, but transformational. The pandemic actually changed how we look at work. Now, women’s desire for career development and advancement is on the rise, and women — including young women entering the workforce — are redefining their futures.

“Women are more ambitious than before the pandemic — and flexibility is fueling that ambition,” says the Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.org.

During the pandemic, women saw that a new or different model of balancing work and life was possible. While few women (or men) want to return to the way things were, the McKinsey report indicates that women are taking more steps to prioritize their personal lives while demanding advancement.

“These women are defying the outdated notion that work and life are incompatible, and that one comes at the expense of the other,” says the report. In other words, women in today’s workforce want to be able to succeed on their own terms.

With these shifts in mind, I turned to local leaders and asked them: What advice would you give young women joining the workforce today?”

Sammy Mila, owner, Crème:

My advice to the young women joining the workforce today, honestly, is to wake up every morning and remember exactly who you are. Think about the challenges you’ve overcome, the changes you’ve made so far, and impacts to come. Carry that confidence into the rest of the day and stay as authentic to yourself and your goals as possible. As women, our intuition guides us, so if a situation doesn’t align with our gut, trust that it wasn’t meant for us. We are so strong, so resilient, and without us, the world couldn’t exist, literally.

Dannie Patrick, senior director of community impact, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines:

Take up space. As women, many times we are judged for owning the space we are in (whether externally or in our own minds). When I started my career (and sometimes even now), I questioned if I had the knowledge or experience to be at tables or in conversation with individuals who had more experience than I did. My skepticism of my experience would get the better of me and I felt myself shrink or stay silent. I would share thoughts outside of a meeting and sometimes later others would be praised for what had been my work or idea. I realize now that we all have different skill sets and just because mine may be different does not make me any less valuable or less qualified. There is not a magic point in your career where you will know everything, but you are always worthy of being there.

Abi Reiland, vice president, JLL:

For whatever reason, growing up, I always viewed other girls and young women as my competition. It wasn’t until later in my professional life that I built a foundation of strong, supportive and positive women as my close friends and mentors. Surrounding myself with women who built me up not only changed my perspective on what a workplace could look like, it also changed how I viewed my own potential. Women often face at least some gender-specific challenges as they embark on professional ascension, and having a support system of other amazing women in place becomes a source of empowerment and possibility. Surround yourself with women you admire and respect, and who reciprocate those feelings, and there are no limits. And on your way to the top, be sure to shine a light on other women for an impact that extends well beyond yourself.

Dallis Roberts, community engagement manager, Broadlawns Medical Center:

My advice to all young women entering the workforce today is to embrace new experiences. Whether it’s volunteering for a project, attending events, or just stepping out of your comfort zone, don’t hesitate to say yes. Experience is the cornerstone of learning and growth.

Throughout my career, I’ve discovered that some of the most unexpected and seemingly random projects I took on have become invaluable assets to me today. They’ve equipped me with diverse skills, expanded my network, and broadened my perspective. It is through these experiences that I have gotten to where I am in my career. So, to all the young women out there, remember that every experience, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has the potential to shape your future in ways you can’t even imagine. Embrace the unknown, embrace the challenges and embrace the opportunities for growth. You never know where it could lead.

Categories: Leadership