COVID Is Forcing More Women Out of the Workforce. What About in Real Estate?


On Nov. 5, two days after election day, all eyes were on Georgia as the presidential vote count inched forward in the Atlanta metro area, and Joe Biden gained on Donald Trump several hundred votes at a time.

For Sara Barnes, an Atlanta resident and Avison Young researcher, the nerve-wracking wait was even more personal than for most. Her husband works at the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office; for the months leading up to election day, he had been going into the office to prepare the state’s voting apparatus.

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“He helped run the election for the State of Georgia, so this has been the worst week of his life,” Barnes said.

Her husband is also diabetic, which requires the family to take extra precautions to ensure that he isn’t exposed to the coronavirus. Barnes chose to work from home until the election was over to minimize their risks. “The last thing I need is go to work and then give it to him,” she said.

Fortunately, their 4-year old daughter has been back in day care, which makes working from home a lot easier. “It was definitely a struggle trying to work from home while she was here,” Barnes said. “She doesn’t understand when mommy and daddy both have a call at the same time and can’t be her personal playmate.”

For working parents, including in commercial real estate, that’s a familiar sentiment.

Like the Barnes family, most households, especially those with children, have had to overhaul their balance of work and family amid the switch to remote work, school closures and sweeping unemployment.

That calculus has led to a mass exodus of women from the workforce, as they attempt to juggle the conflicting demands of work and child care.

Since January, 2.2 million women have left the workforce, compared with 1.5 million men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In September, when school began, women dropped out of the workforce at four times the rate of men, per the data. That’s 865,000 women compared with 216,000 similarly aged men in just one month. And one in four women say they’ve considered scaling back their work in some way, either leaving the workforce, moving to part-time work, or taking a temporary break, according to a report from McKinsey on women in the workforce.

And that number goes up to one in three for working mothers.

“Working women and working mothers, in particular, have been leaving the workforce more than men, because they are still the primary caregivers in the family,” said Nicole Bateman, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution who studies labor markets.

Prior to COVID, women who work full-time spent 40 percent more time on average on child care than men, according to labor statistics. That would suggest that women would bear more of the increased child care demands introduced by the pandemic, according to a Northwestern University research paper on the subject.

And, in addition to the more immediate concerns of women leaving the workforce, in industries like real estate, where most employees can work from home, the increased child care burden could impact women’s careers in other ways, setting them further back from colleagues who are not facing the same challenges.

It’s one more way that the pandemic is reinforcing existing inequities. “Given this current crisis we’re experiencing, it isn’t necessarily surprising, given the structure of our economy before COVID,” Bateman said.

There are several factors contributing to the disparity between men and women leaving the labor market, with child care at the forefront.

Unlike in most recessions, including after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, where unemployment increased among men far more than women, the unprecedented school shutdowns forced many people into an untenable position of having to choose between working and caring for their children. And, not only did schools and day cares close, but alternative childcare options, like having a family member care for the children, were also no longer readily available, due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

In addition to the uneven division of labor in married households, there are far more single mothers than single fathers: more than 15 million single mothers compared with 6.4 million single fathers, according to census data cited by the Northwestern University research paper. Because of both factors, nearly one in five women were reliant on schools and day care to be able to work, compared with one in eight men, according to an analysis of census data by Bateman.

Between February and August, more than two million mothers, with children under 12, lost their jobs, compared to less than one million fathers, according to a Pew analysis. “That can largely be explained by some layoffs, but also the child care losses,” Bateman said.

It is also the case that the crisis has had a larger effect on low-wage workers, in general, and women make up a larger share of those workers than men, comprising 47 percent of all employed Americans, but 54 percent of low-wage workers, according to Bateman’s analysis. Many low-wage jobs need to be done in person, which might not be an option for people living with a vulnerable family member.

And, third, the pandemic has had a larger effect on service sectors like hospitality, where women are overrepresented.

In all of these cases, working mothers who cannot work remotely are most affected, but those who can work from home face their own set of challenges as they attempt to perform at the same level as their colleagues, while bearing more of the child care burden.

That’s the case in the commercial real estate industry, where most employees were able to work from home during the early shutdowns, and most can continue to work from home if necessary. So, while few women may be forced to leave the industry, it could affect their career trajectories.

For junior brokers, it’s nearly impossible to move forward without being able to network and build relationships, said Adelaide Polsinelli, a commercial broker at Compass. “Before the pandemic, I would get maybe 10 women looking to get into the business, looking for advice, direction or an opportunity. Now, I have zero women,” she said. “I still get young guys looking. I had five new hires looking for employment. All men, no women.”

A woman who works in communications for multiple real estate companies said that that relationship gap affects women at higher levels, too. “The people who are most senior and who have existing relationships, they had a huge advantage early in the crisis,” she said. “They had already gone to dinner, which is harder to do virtually. Women may have been disadvantaged by that.”

And, as employees return to the office, those who choose not to go back could miss out.

I think we need to watch for the re-entry of people to the workplace,” since women may take longer to return to the office, said Rachel Casanova, senior managing director of workplace innovation at Cushman & Wakefield (CWK). “[That] could also result in those women losing some of the same connection than those that can return. That may create professional gaps for women.”

Of course, not only women face these challenges. Most employees have had their lives upended, most parents are facing increased child care demands, and many fathers are primary caregivers as well.

Companies are taking steps to support employees. Some have offered additional child care options at work or have allowed employees to bring their children to the office. SL Green (SLG) Realty has converted some unused space at their New York offices into classrooms to encourage employees to return to the office, according to the company’s third-quarter earnings call.

“Aside from mass transit, another thing or refrain we hear is, ‘Well my kid’s school is not in session so we — I have to stay home with them and proctor them for online schooling,’ which is like a tragedy,” said SL Green Chief Financial Officer Matthew DiLiberto. That prompted the landlord, one of the largest in New York City, to find a solution.

Cushman & Wakefield has added a resource group for parents and caregivers, and has expanded its Women’s Network, Casanova said. In addition, it’s working with a company called Avo, which offers same-day delivery of household items that arrive in a to-go pack in the afternoon, so employees are prepared for the evening. “Anything that saves that little trip to get things on the list,” she said.

Barnes in Atlanta said that her company, Avison Young, has been understanding about her need to work from home. “With our company, here in Atlanta, my boss is so flexible. He has kids that are my age, who now have their own kids, so he gets it,” she said. “They have been super-flexible.”

She also says she’s lucky that her daughter’s day care has been very safe, so they felt comfortable sending her back. When schools opened in Atlanta back in May, she and her husband chose to keep their daughter home for a few extra months because of her husband’s condition. But, after a while, they made the risk assessment that it was better for their daughter’s mental health — and theirs — to send her back.

“I bought a pack of masks on Amazon, and it became the best part of the day to get to pick a mask that matches her outfit,” Barnes said.

But she’s eager to get back to the office after the election is finally done. “It’s nice to work from home, but you get lonely,” she said. “It would be nice to be able to at least say ‘good morning’ to some people.”

While companies are addressing some of their employees’ needs, overall, the impact on women and women’s employment is likely to last long term, Bateman said. Research shows that the longer employees remain out of the workforce, the harder it is to make up for that time, which is concerning, given the continuing spread of the pandemic in the United States. “The result is that women who have chosen to leave the labor market will continue to do so, staying out of the labor market for longer,” she said.

“Rather than resetting our norms, I think this is really going to set us back,” Bateman added. “We’re seeing that the disparities, particularly child care responsibilities between men and women, are still very much a reality, and [the pandemic] has amplified that difference.”