Women Who Work in Retail Are Having Very Different Experiences in COVID-19 Times

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has had an uneven impact across people, communities and industries. But as more and more data is collected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the health crisis has significantly amplified the divide between the haves and have nots — but the puts and takes are more complicated than meets the eye.

A report this week from ShopTalk offered new evidence that the pandemic has served up very divergent outcomes for women working in the retail industry — albeit in ways some may not have anticipated. The company, which hosts an annual convention in Las Vegas, surveyed more than 330 women in its retail network and one-fourth said the pandemic has negatively impacted their careers while slightly over one-third said COVID-19 has actually had a positive impact on them professionally. Meanwhile, 40% said COVID-19 has had no impact on their careers.

Perhaps it is reassuring to see data that runs somewhat counter to the prevailing narrative that the global health crisis has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on all women in the workplace. A headline-grabbing December 2020 jobs report, for example, indicated that women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs lost.

However, Shoptalk’s survey suggests that women’s professional experiences need not be examined solely through the lens of negative versus positive outcomes.

In fact, all told, 74% of Shoptalk respondents have either seen no impact or a positive impact on their careers, which Shoptalk said indicates “a breadth of repercussions of COVID-19 to [our] community, rather than purely negative outcomes.”

For example, Shoptalk found that the impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers was fairly consistent across seniority and organization types.

“Women with children or other dependents did not report a dramatically different career impact than those without kids, though they did identify distinct challenges related to caregiving,” Shoptalk said in the report. “These challenges often predated the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it.”

A deeper dive into the data, according to Shoptalk, revealed that the drivers of so-called positive and negative impacts tended to be very different for women. For instance, the women who indicated a negative toll pointed to severe, quantitative impacts such as having their compensation cut, their workload significantly increased or losing their jobs, while those who said they felt a positive impact most often provided “more attitudinal responses such as being challenged in new ways.”

“I was afforded the opportunity to perform duties and take responsibilities due to the organization’s need to adapt. Without COVID, I may not have had this opportunity to excel,” said one survey respondent.

What’s more, Shoptalk researchers suggested that as more women are tapped for leadership roles across retail — a survey last week by Madrid-based research company Nextail found female representation among fashion CEOs rose by 95% last year — the path could be cleared for other women in such organizations to not only climb the ranks but receive more support and mentorship.

Case in point: Two-thirds of Shoptalk’s survey respondents said they are doing more to address the challenges they or their female colleagues experience in the workplace because of the global health crisis — including 36% who said they’ve made themselves a resource for other women in the workplace. That number, said the Shoptalk, jumps to 47% for women VP-level and higher.

While the survey offers some upbeat news for women in retail — and Shoptalk’s respondents are likely working in corporate roles which could slant some of the feedback — it’s difficult to overlook the scores of women working at the store level who have been impacted by mass layoffs and furloughs since last March. Major retail employers, including JCPenney, Neiman Marcus and J.Crew, filed Chapter 11 last year, citing COVID-19 induced setbacks — and moved to drastically reduce their store fleets and lay-off associates. (Shoptalk describes its 8,000-plus convention attendees as individuals and companies reshaping how consumers discover, shop and buy.)

Meanwhile, research over the past six months has reinforced the notion that society’s most vulnerable — including racial and ethnic minorities — are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s also been shown that women in other low-paying and service-industry jobs such as restaurants and daycare facilities are among those most impacted by these pandemic-induced layoffs, an undeniably negative outcome of the health crisis.

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