The pandemic has had an outsized impact on working women. Now advocates say workplaces and the state legislature should take steps to lessen the burden.
Leslie Forde said her research has shown the impact all too clearly. She's a member of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts and founder of an online community called Mom's Hierarchy of Needs, who conducted a study of nearly 2,000 parents, mostly mothers.
"When asked in the study, 'What do you need for your well-being right now, what do you need for your productivity right now and what do you need for your happiness right now,' the answers are the same," Forde said in an online forum on the topic hosted Thursday by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. "It's child care, it's access to mental health care and it's flexibility at work."
Those issues were among the workplace and legislative priorities discussed throughout Thursday's forum. Forde said that the participants in her study said the pandemic has added to the pressure they face.
"Eighty percent at this point have said that they are doing 'terribly' or 'not as well as usual' as caregivers to themselves," she said. "They are giving up everything that used to fuel their mental, physical and emotional well-being. They are ignoring routine health checks."
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch, said the pandemic has laid bare deep socioeconomic, racial and gender disparities.
"The pandemic did not create the disparities," Sullivan said. "The pandemic simply amplified the consequences of years — I would say generations — of society's failure to adequately address antiquated systems and to revisit regressive public policy that is antithetical to our value of equality."
Sullivan cited a September 2020 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company that found nearly two million women are considering leaving the workforce as a result of the pandemic.
"The report also showed that women of color specifically were more likely to be laid off or furloughed during this crisis, with no plan with respect to the return of those jobs," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said it's important to acknowledge that low-income workers have been more vulnerable during the pandemic than white collar workers.
"It is also important that companies, that the business community, works to ensure that our most vulnerable workers are protected at work as they return and that they have access to safe working environments — and also the benefits that allow them to support their families, not only through this crisis, but through a recovery," Sullivan said.
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, D - Middlesex and Norfolk, said the state legislature also has a part to play in addressing these issues.
"We have an obligation and a responsibility to rethink the way we deliver early education and care, with the goal of making it accessible, affordable to all young children," Spilka said during Thursday's forum, adding that new legislation should include a careful examination of how the needs of parents may have changed during the pandemic.
She said where and when childcare is needed may be different now, given the new realities of remote work for many parents.
"We're not going to go back to the old normal, and we should not go back to the old normal," Spilka said. "But we have an opportunity and a responsibility to be looking at things with a different lens — everything, to be honest with you."
Spilka also said she'll work to pass legislation this session to increase access to mental health care, a need which has only increased during the pandemic. That bill passed the state Senate last year but the House did not take it up.