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Reaching and Resonating with Women Impacted by the Pandemic

15 MINUTE READ | December 15, 2020

Reaching and Resonating with Women Impacted by the Pandemic

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Shelina Taki, Executive Strategy Director

Shelina has spent the last 17+ years helping brands find their way into the hearts and minds of the people they want to reach. Her proven approach to brand strategy comes to life at the intersection of data and culture. Shelina has worked with some of the world’s most beloved brands, including Google, Toyota, Apple, Starbucks, BMW, Postmates, Expedia, and MARS Wrigley, driving business impact and cultural connection. At PMG, Shelina leads the brand planning and creative strategy disciplines across our portfolio.

Women, Interrupted

As 2020 draws to a close, most Americans are looking back at the year with no love lost. Sure, we’ve all encountered the occasional person who really likes Zoom school (Cartman from South Park comes to mind), or the odd brand that has seen sales rocket sky high (i.e., Clorox, Lysol, Purell, Peloton, Zoom). But for the vast majority of the country, 2020 is a year to forget. 

Though there is hope on the horizon, including the approval of a vaccine (with others close behind) and millions of people and businesses actively reevaluating their approach to racial equality and equity, we must acknowledge that there are groups of people who will continue to bear the most damaging effects of the chaos ushered in by 2020 for many years to come.

One group in particular spans across all categories — those directly affected by the virus, teachers, nurses and frontline workers, communities of color, small business owners and executives alike. This group makes up 50 percent of the global population and has been a driving force in the American economy for generations, shaping everything from retail trends to travel plans, purchase behavior and public policy.

While all Americans — and people across the globe — experienced a rollercoaster year of ups and downs, for millions of women, in particular, the ride stopped at the bottom, forcing them to begin the slow climb back up while carrying the undue burden of the pandemic’s most devastating effects. It’s for this reason that brands and marketers must pay special attention to women and families for the years to come, to help repair and support them through the economic and societal damage of the pandemic, acknowledge and address the national reckoning of racial inequality, take responsibility for their role in natural disasters, and help lead us forward from 2020. 

Perhaps the most quantifiable impact on women during the pandemic came in the conundrum of child care. As offices and businesses closed, the workforce was disrupted and children were kept home from school and daycare, forcing parents to play the dual role of guardian and teacher. For parents who were able to work from home, this created a stressful situation at best. For parents who had to leave home for work, the choice became near impossible, leaving limited alternative options.

A balancing act became the norm for many families, and mothers were categorically affected more than fathers. According to Lean In founder, Sheryl Sandberg, “Mothers are spending 20 more hours a week on housework and child care during coronavirus than fathers. Twenty more hours a week is half of a full-time job.” 

In fact, after consistent year over year growth in the share of women entering the U.S. workforce, 2020 resulted in many women leaving the workforce entirely as a direct result of the pandemic. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates, a result of increasing unpaid care responsibilities, the pandemic’s impact on the employment sectors in which women are most heavily represented, and general attitudes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women.

About 617,000 women are reported to have left the workforce in just the month of September, compared to only 78,000 men. Of those still working, one in four women are thinking of downshifting or leaving their careers due to the prolonged and increasing burden of child or family care. And the story is only bleaker for certain subgroups, including single mothers and women of color. 

One in five women do not live with a spouse or partner, and these women are more likely than mothers overall to say that financial insecurity is one of their top concerns during the pandemic as they take on an increasingly large share of housework and child care responsibilities. 

Black women are shouldering more responsibility at home with less financial security and are experiencing worse health outcomes overall. Fifty-one percent of employed Black women are working on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers compared to 38 percent of white women, despite the fact that Black women enroll in college at higher rates than men overall (most notably at higher rates than white men).

Black females have also indicated that they have received less support from their companies than their white female counterparts. Specifically, Black women report feeling less safe to discuss matters that are pressing them, including racism, which has been an increasingly prevalent topic weighing on members of the Black community, particularly since the displays of police brutality this summer and the rise in social activism that followed. All of these factors, in part, lie in the systematic racism prevalent in healthcare and the workforce, and the pandemic seems to have only heightened these effects.

Overall job loss is also disproportionately affecting BIPOC. Although unemployment rates have decreased since the start of the pandemic, unemployment rates remain in the double digits for Black women (11.1 percent) and Latina women (11 percent) compared to women overall (7.7 percent). Additionally, the jobs that have returned employ BIPOC at far lower rates (39 percent versus 60 percent of the overall population).

In short, we are at a societal crossroads that threatens to undo years of progress toward female empowerment and equity in the workplace, and brands and business leaders have a pivotal role to play in supporting and responding to the evolving needs of women while helping them avoid a generational setback in gender balance the likes of which we have not seen in decades. 

2020 brought America its first elected female on a major party ticket: Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, a South Asian and Black woman whose historic nomination and election to office has been widely celebrated. Vice President-Elect Harris offers many women hope in what has been a bleak political year as Americans grappled with the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneer who fought for justice and equality and helped to shape women’s rights in America. 

This election cycle also felt more personal to women, some of whom reversed the vote they cast in 2016 for President Trump. Fifty-seven percent of female votes this year went to the Biden/Harris ticket, compared to 42 percent to Trump/Pence. Women also voted at higher rates than men in 2020. By demographic, President-Elect Joe Biden made gains compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016 among college-educated white women, but Black women really solidified his victory as early polls indicated 91 percent of Black women voted for Biden.

An Adobe Digital Insights study following the 2016 election reported that women and GenZ were the two demographics that reportedly felt the most uncertain following that election. This feeling of uncertainty for women has heightened again this year around the election, largely due to female-centric conversations regarding Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the United States Supreme Court and renewed implications for Roe v. Wade and other policies regarding women’s rights and representation.

This year, America leaned into the power of women, electing a record-breaking 13 non-incumbent Republican women to represent their respective states in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as electing the first-ever female Vice President. 

The long-term implications of women stepping back from or altering their roles in the workplace, combined with the heightened anxiety many continue to feel as a result of the election and pandemic will have an economic impact on businesses of all sizes. Referred to as a “female recession,” this phenomenon has far-reaching implications throughout various aspects of society that will be felt for years to come by the entire economy, not just by the women and families directly represented in this trend. While these issues threaten to reverse years of painstaking progress in gender equality, pay disparity, female job opportunities, and attitudinal thinking, they also threaten the U.S. GDP in both the immediate and distant future.

Behind every worrying statistic are real women struggling to put food on the table, care for and educate their children or aging parents, make financial investments, land their first job or their next promotion, purchase real estate, shop retail, and find their footing in an uncertain world. In simple terms, a financially-insecure woman is a woman who buys and invests less; and unfortunately, more women are feeling more financially insecure than ever before.

Women are historically more conservative with money than men, so their collective financial uncertainty has the potential to significantly impact the economy. This is especially true when we consider that in recent history, women held the most power in household spending and continue to determine the goods that are purchased for millions of families nationwide.

Catalyst, a global nonprofit that focuses on building workplaces for women, claims that as of 2019, women directed 83 percent of all consumption in the U.S. both in terms of buying power and influence. On average, 89 percent of women throughout the world reported controlling or sharing daily shopping needs, compared to only 41 percent of men, even taking into account the gap that exists between the earnings of men and women.

To further support this narrative, the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that in 2019, 48.6 percent of women engaged in purchasing goods and services per day in contrast to only 38 percent of men. One large driving force behind this statistic is that women are often responsible for buying products for other individuals in their household (e.g. kids, in-laws, or significant others) whereas males most often buy for only themselves and their significant other.

Notably, according to Catalyst, the purchasing power of BIPOC individuals was also on the rise pre-pandemic, with women of color participating significantly in the workforce and the U.S. GDP. 

Brand marketers must keep in mind that although women have historically held the most buying power, they have also been one of the most disproportionately affected groups during the pandemic. As we enter the final stretch of holiday shopping this year, women will continue to drive the bulk of household purchasing decisions, and marketers need to stay attuned to her needs, her worries, and her joys to find success this holiday season and into 2021 and beyond.

Perhaps one of the cruelest aspects of the pandemic is its simultaneous and relentless attack on under-served groups, including low-income families, people of color, essential workers, and women, juxtaposed against the augmentation of the already privileged. This is where the “K shaped economy” comes in, where the pandemic-related economic recovery of the U.S. has been bifurcated, mostly as a result of the economic disparity in wealth that was present before the pandemic even started — a wealth disparity that has only been exacerbated by the events of 2020.

Earlier this year, individuals in certain industries, such as food and dining or hospitality, suddenly found themselves unemployed and with little money saved to support themselves, and it’s only developed into a worsening situation since. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, “one in four adults have had trouble paying their bills since the pandemic started. A third have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet and about one in six have borrowed money from friends or family, or received food from a food bank.” 

However, individuals with financially secure jobs in industries that have remained stable during the pandemic have found themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum. Despite their own share of worry, these Americans actually found themselves saving money due to a decrease in everyday disposable income expenditure (e.g., no more dinners out with friends, no more vacations, less spent on fuel or transportation expenses). In many cases, stock market growth also bolstered those who have the means to invest.

Furthermore, the global poverty gap between women and men is now widening after years of steady decline, a direct result of the pandemic-induced economic downturn and its impact on women. Women aged 25-34, many of whom are beginning their careers and raising young children, have been hit the hardest, and have now seen the sharpest drop in labor force participation due to the pandemic. Women of color have left the workforce at higher rates than white women, with the number of Hispanic women leaving the labor force increasing by seven percent since February, the number of Black women increasing by six percent, and the number of white women increasing at three percent.

If left unchecked, the continuation of this disparity threatens to unravel years of progress for women of color in the workplace and in their economic standing. And for women who have had to leave the workforce due to the pandemic, it may take up to a decade or longer for these individuals to regain the financial and professional losses incurred

From an economic standpoint, this means a decade of reduced investment from females in everything from household goods and retail purchases, to homes and cars, to financial investments and savings, and even higher and continuing education. In society, it means years of continued and increasing inequality and inequity in gender and race.

As Americans — and the world at large — look forward to the release of multiple COVID-19 vaccines in the months ahead, it will be important for brands to continue to monitor and respond to new trends emerging among those significantly affected by the pandemic, including women. 

For brands and marketers, it is important to calibrate messaging, campaigns and audience strategies to reach and resonate with women as they continue to confront a broad range of challenges, emotional states and needs.

It will be important to gather information about the short and long-term impact of the pandemic on men and women, mentally, economically and medically. Multiple facets of the female experience will need to be monitored, spanning from issues of reproductive, sexual, and mental health, domestic violence, and gender discrimination, to issues surrounding unemployment or employment gaps, working parents, and women navigating career decisions in a new environment.

Brands must look beyond conventional demographic data to understand a new female consumer mindset and adjust their audience and messaging strategies accordingly. For the BIPOC women who have been most impacted, it will be less about serving them an ad and more about how the brand is doing the right thing for customers and for their own female BIPOC employees through their grassroots efforts and in their local communities. 

Brands must be empathetic to what people are experiencing and wrestling with, especially as challenges, such as the fight for racial equity, are multidimensional or rooted in systemic issues. Brand messages that prioritize meaningful human connection are likely to strike a chord, but it’s important to ensure that messaging is genuine, relevant and true to the brand’s mission or core values, or else inconsistency will be exposed and criticized. Today, actions speak louder than ads, so it’s just as important for marketers to champion that business values align with brand messaging.

It’s likely the women within the organization who represent your brand day-to-day are encumbered by these challenges, too. Recognizing how the implications of the female recession affect those who are pushing the business forward — whether it be in-store sales associates or a corporate employee — is another way to forge authentic connections with your customer and her needs, wants and desires. 

Brands that stand for female empowerment must channel new ways of sharing their message, confronting the unique challenges women now face, not just their ability to triumph in the face of adversity. For example, Ford’s empowering “Built Phenomenally” campaign that launched in January 2020 targeting African American women can be thoughtfully reframed around the pandemic realities for its target audience or could introduce a means of support for Black women buying cars in the current climate of uncertainty, similar to Hyundai’s Assurance program. However, this takes careful calibration, not just a performative change.

Priorities for many women have shifted over the past year, and brands cannot resume the status quo post-pandemic. Advertising must be realistic and inclusive — messaging to women overall and working mothers especially must acknowledge the stress they are under rather than portraying images of perfection. Services that focused on convenience and value during the pandemic, such as curbside pickup or contactless delivery, can transition from a health focus to expediency. Brand loyalty can be built and maintained via transparent business practices, commitments to female-centric hiring practices and philanthropy, and public commitment to help women regain the ground lost in 2020.

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Together, we must embark on a campaign of knowledge and empathy if we ever hope to truly move past COVID-19. Acknowledging that, while the whole world experienced this pandemic, certain groups — including women — have had a much more severe experience than others, will be a necessary first step on the post-pandemic journey toward equity among gender and race. Making adjustments and accommodations to help propel women forward in the aftermath of this crisis must be the next step. For in the words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

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