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Home / Expert Opinion / MCBA President’s Column: Work remains to create workplace equality for women

MCBA President’s Column: Work remains to create workplace equality for women

Jill Paperno (Photo by Bennett Loudon)

Jill Paperno (Photo by Bennett Loudon)

As I stopped at St. John’s Home to handle some business today, with the parking lot emptier than it used to be, and visits still closed, there was a gray-haired man standing in the middle of the lot. I parked my car and exited. It was cold out, and there were piles of snow around the lot, but the sun was shining brightly. He stood in the driveway near what is called the Sunrise Room, smiling and blowing kisses to a loved one on a higher floor — I think she may have been on the third floor. I went inside and continued to watch. He danced, hopping to the left and right, twirling, arms wide, smiling and blowing more kisses. As I left, he continued to dance in the lot, lovingly gesturing to a window above. I cannot describe the emotions I felt. The pandemic has hit us all in ways big and small. If you are experiencing emotions and need a friend or an ear, please reach out to our Health & Well-Being Committee.

But the world carries on. March is Women’s History Month. It is recognized in many ways, including local recognition and national observation. In our region, we are never far from the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and her quest for equality and equity. The Editorial Board of the Democrat and Chronicle observed, “Our link to suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman is proof of our community’s legacy of fighting for social justice and equality, and battling discrimination.”

Nationally, many of our institutions are recognizing Women’s History Month with online opportunities. A link to some of the films, videos and discussions presented by the Library of Congress, Smithsonian and other national treasures can be found here:

But sometimes the celebration and recognition divert from the reality of what women face, especially this year.

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on women, more than the health, financial and employment issues faced by the general workforce. In February, in a Fortune article titled “COVID-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce. Here’s how to help them come back” by Kweilin Ellingrud and Liz Hilton Segel, the authors noted that although the U.S. economy is beginning to improve, the likelihood of women returning to pre-pandemic levels of employment is still questionable. They cite an analysis of projections estimating women’s employment may not recover for another two full years after recovery for men. The authors state:

“Without significant action, such as additional employer support and training programs, there is a real danger that female labor force participation could face its steepest sustained decline since World War II. Female workforce participation has already dropped to 57% — the lowest level since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

“… While unemployment numbers were roughly equal between men and women in February 2020, according to a McKinsey analysis of the Current Population Survey that is conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for women peaked at 15.8% in April 2020, more than 2 percentage points above that for men. In September, when schools resumed, many of them with remote learning, 80% of the 1.1 million people who exited the workforce were women. In December, women accounted for all of the net job losses, while men achieved some job gains. Today, unemployment for women remains 1.9 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level.”

As law firms and our community begin to recover from the devastation of the pandemic, we must focus on how to ensure that women are not left behind. What can we do to reduce the stress of the employee who wants to — and needs to — keep her job, while caring for young children engaged in remote schooling? We have found so many ways to reimagine employment and productivity through this difficult time, and we must continue to do so in a way that protects women in the workforce, or who wish to join it.

While the current re-entry may focus on protecting jobs and modifying employment duties, we must also be more forward-looking. One perennial issue is childcare. In the 1970s I joined women across America in speaking out for free childcare for all. That has not happened. We must find ways of ensuring that safe, educational and healthy childcare exists and is affordable and accessible to all. We must find ways of accommodating the needs of women (and men who are primary caretakers) who must stay home as children are engaged in remote or hybrid school.

And so, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, we cannot rest on the achievements of so many women of whom we are so proud but use their struggles and accomplishments to motivate us to think creatively about how we can create true equality and equity in our workplaces.

Jill Paperno is president of the Monroe County Bar Association. She is First Assistant Public Defender at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.