BARBIE AND WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACEAug 22, 2023
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BARBIE AND THE NEW U.S. CHAMBER REPORT ABOUT TODAY’S EMPLOYMENT CRISIS
The pandemic's impact on the job market is undeniable, as industries across the globe continue to face the fallout. While challenges are unique depending upon industry, one common denominator echoes through boardrooms, HR departments, cubicles, clinics, factory floors and even fast-food drive-throughs... Where did all the people go?
I couldn’t let this moment in time pass without seizing the opportunity to intersect my career as a writer and content developer and my childhood enamor with Barbie. This past July, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie splashed across screens, billboards, and magazines... while tiptoeing across computer screens, job boards and HR publications, the answer to that unifying question, “Where did all the workers go?” answered quietly.
"Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved."
This tongue-in-cheek line from the opening of Gerwig’s blockbuster caused me to pause in light of recent statistics. According to reports published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the latest data shows that as of July 2023, we have 9.8 million job openings in the U.S., but only 5.9 million unemployed workers. For context, the current labor force participation rate is 62.6%, down from 63.4% in February 2020. This less than 1% difference may not look like much at first glance, but in reality, 1.9 million workers are missing from the labor force. There are a number of contributors ranging from early retirements and less employment-based immigration to an increase in new business start-ups and caring for medically vulnerable family members. But perhaps the most revealing group of people missing from the labor force today are women. A separate Chamber report estimates that one million women are missing from the labor force compared to February 2020. But what does any of this have to do with Barbie?
As Barbie embarks on her journey, the narrative explores themes of ambition, identity, and societal expectations. These themes resonate deeply with the experiences of countless women who were forced to reevaluate their professional paths in the face of the pandemic's challenges. While both men and women felt the repercussions, women, in particular, found themselves at a unique crossroads. Many were forced to juggle remote work with increased caregiving responsibilities due to school closures and the overall disruption of daily routines. As a result, a substantial number of women made the difficult decision to step back from their careers, either temporarily or permanently.
“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come.” -Ruth Handler, Barbie creator
Despite the great strides for equality that have been made throughout the decades and the fact that women currently hold 47% of all jobs in the U.S. and globally, a 20% pay gap still exists. The rising costs of childcare, coupled with the discovery that one income could be enough if managed modestly, led many families to opt for a more family-centric lifestyle. And as couples began forging their new lives, the answer to “who” would stay home was obvious. Women earn about $172 less per week than men. Unfortunately, as the Chamber report points out, once a woman leaves work to care for her children, reentering the workforce becomes more challenging.
Perhaps, in these early days of post-pandemic life, Barbie (and Taylor Swift’s Eras tour!) was just what women needed. By highlighting Barbie's struggles and triumphs as she faced unforeseen obstacles, the movie mirrored the experiences of women who grappled with the decision of whether to return to work or to continue prioritizing caregiving responsibilities. Not only did women and mothers feel seen for a moment, but it also provided an opportunity for adults to reflect on their own paths forward.
As society emerges from the pandemic, the implications of the choices made by women during this time will continue to become increasingly apparent. The decision to step back from the workforce is deeply personal and influenced by a multitude of factors. If these women choose to return, my hope is that we will welcome them back with openness and understanding rather than questioning the employment gaps on resumes. And as companies struggle to fill roles due to the lack of available workers, it would be wise to consider how they can better support the challenges that many face balancing responsibilities of work and home, as well as the rising cost of childcare that makes working not much better than break even for many.
In the realm of our current work force, Barbie’s journey finds resonance. As we move forward, it’s crucial to welcome these choices with empathy, supporting a balanced work-life dynamic. Companies must adapt, acknowledging the complexities women navigate. Just as Barbie’s story provides insights, let it remind us to embrace a more understanding and inclusive workforce, enriching the path ahead.
“Barbie is all these women. And all these women are Barbie.” -Narrator