Pulse Points: Women and the Workforce
By: Josh Corman

BETWEEN FEBRUARY AND MAY OF 2020, almost 11 million jobs held by women in the United States disappeared. As a result, female unemployment reached double-digits in the U.S. for the first time since 1948. And high unemployment rates were just part of COVID-19’s economic fallout—women also left the workforce altogether at higher rates than men in 2020. In September of last year alone, more than 850,000 women dropped out of the workforce, compared to just 216,000 men.

Why were women so disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s impact on the job market? There are a couple of reasons, actually. First, women hold the majority of positions in the sectors, such as retail, leisure and hospitality, that the pandemic hit hardest. Second, because women often perform the majority of childcare duties, disruptions to the childcare industry and widespread movement toward virtual schooling has made it difficult for many women who were laid off or furloughed to return to their previous jobs or seek new ones. All of this adds up to what some economists have called the first female recession, or “she-cession” for short.

The “She-cession” and the Spa Industry
The American Massage Therapy Association estimates that 88 percent of massage therapists in the U.S. are women, and the percentages of female estheticians and nail technicians are similarly high, so it’s no surprise that COVID-19’s impact on the spa industry workforce seems to be particularly pronounced. Any economic event leading to worse outcomes for women was always going to have an outsized effect on industries so heavily reliant upon their labor.

The data above also helps to explain why the pandemic’s effects on the spa industry workforce has seemed, at times, counterintuitive. In ISPA’s August 2020 Snapshot Survey, conducted when most spas had reopened but were operating with reduced levels of staff, nearly half (46%) of all spas were hiring massage therapists, 37 percent were hiring nail technicians and almost a quarter (22%) were hiring estheticians. Those figures were despite just 27 percent of all spas reporting that they had brought all pre-pandemic staff back on board. Of course, not all of those unfilled positions were service provider roles, but many respondents on that same survey noted that it was a challenge for their spas to fill open service provider positions with either pre-pan-demic staff or new applicants. That suggests that spas are now having to contend not only with a talent shortage that existed before COVID-19 struck, but also with an applicant pool which may have become much smaller as women left the workforce.

A Different Kind of Recovery
It’s important to note that COVID-19 has affected the workforce landscape differently than, say, the Great Reces-sion did more than a decade ago. In that instance, around 80 percent of job losses occurred among men, and women stepped into the breach, often seeking employment to supplement household income. It stands to reason that an unprecedented set of economic symptoms will require a new approach to recovery, both for the economy overall and for the spa industry specifically.

That recovery, of course, will be complicated by uncertainty surrounding broader issues like widespread virtual schooling and a lack of childcare options. The industry’s talent pipeline will need to be evaluated going forward as well. A recent report from LeanIn.org, however, emphasizes that employers are in a position to make some short-term adjustments that can work as a direct response to the outsized burden COVID-19 is placing on women in the workplace. Among its advice? Be flexible and adjust existing policies wherever possibilities to support employees. As the report notes, when employees believe leaders are supportive of their need for flexibility, they are less likely to consider “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce.