Women and the Workforce: Turning Unemployment into Opportunity

Sociologist and entrepreneurial evangelist Dr. Ali Trachtman Hill, J98, encourages women to work for themselves and define success on their own terms
A woman wearing a striped shirt types on a laptop with her phone next to her.
"In this moment, it has stopped being an individual choice narrative, and started being a systemic narrative around the reality of working women’s lives in this country," said Dr. Ali Trachtman Hill, J98. Photo: Ingimage
April 6, 2021

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Since February 2020, 5.4 million women in the United States have lost or left their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December, every one of the 140,000 jobs lost were women’s jobs [PDF]. The concerning trend—dubbed the “she-cession”—has undone a decade worth of gains, said Dr. Ali Trachtman Hill, J98, a sociologist, executive advisor, and founder of Sound Advice Women.

A portion of those women worked in travel, hospitality, and other industries where there were no longer customers, and were laid off for lack of revenue. However, a big swath of that population left because the other responsibilities in their lives, such as child care, elder care, or home management, became untenable when the pandemic hit.

“So often with women, there is this narrative of personal choice, that they ‘chose to have children’ or ‘chose to take care of parents who’d grown into old age,’” said Hill. “But in this moment, it has stopped being an individual choice narrative, and started being a systemic narrative around the reality of working women’s lives in this country. I’m glad we can now see and name the sexism that exists within the foundations of many of our social systems.”

Hill recently spoke with Tufts Now about the opportunity she sees for women in this moment and offered advice for women on how to strategically plan the next step in their careers.

Tufts Now: What do women experience when they attempt to re-enter the workforce, and what are the ramifications if they can’t get back in?

"Entrepreneurship is one of the most exhilarating leaps you can take in your professional life, and now is the time to jump," said Ali Hill, J98. Photo: Courtesy of Ali HillAli Hill: For women who stepped out of or were pushed out of the workforce, it can mean a difficult road to re-entry. The off ramps are many, and the on ramps are fewer. My concern is that women who want to get back in can’t, whether it’s because the jobs have disappeared, or that they’ve been filled by people whom the employers could pay less, for myriad reasons.

On the macro level, corporations and organizations that can’t or won’t hire women (back) will lack the expertise, experience, and institutional memory these women bring. Millions of families also will suffer without the income women earned.

On the micro level, there are issues of identity and self-efficacy for these women. If they see themselves as working people who support themselves (and others) financially through their work, and they value the impact they have on their communities and society through their labor, how will losing those things impact their mental health? What about their satisfaction with their lives?

There is a lot to lose.

What’s your advice to women who want or need to go back to work?

As an entrepreneurial evangelist, my interest is for them to consider entrepreneurship as the next step on their career journey. Now that they have experienced the myth of the bi-monthly paycheck as safety and security, my hope is that they will explore starting their own businesses rather than going to work for someone else.

Whether they can do this full-time or need to start their own business as a side hustle, the first step is to change their mindset about how they see themselves, and their work. Do they have a skill or idea they can turn into a service business, or a consultancy? What about a product or digital widget they’ve always wanted to create? If they were performing a role inside of an organization, is there a way to provide it directly to clients? Project managers, finance and accounting professionals, marketers, web designers, curriculum writers, fundraisers — just to name a few — are all in high demand as businesses recover from the challenges of COVID-19. 

Women can start by making a list of what they loved about their prior roles, and what depleted their energy that they will no longer do. From there they can craft a list of services they’re interested in offering or goods they want to produce, price points for their work, and begin brainstorming whom in their network might be interested or in need of those goods or services.

While they will ultimately need to spend money on business and technological infrastructure, there are many free versions of tools they can use to get started. They can also look to their friends, family members, former colleagues, books, alma mater (check out the Tufts Entrepreneurship Network), and online communities of women entrepreneurs for support and guidance. It is critical that they create a community around themselves as they learn.

Starting your own business may seem like a risky move for many women. What do you tell women who may be hesitant to take the leap?

As girls are socialized into women in this country, we are taught that we should value physical, emotional, and financial security over calculated risk-taking. We are taught to watch out for danger much more often than to look out for opportunity. This creates a tendency to look for a good job, rather than to create meaningful work for ourselves.

It makes sense then, that many women are fearful about getting started. When I speak and work with them, I remind them that they can coexist with their fear, and still make space to create an authentic business that reflects their passion and skill. I ask them to reject the idea that discomfort with risk is a personal failing or individual shortcoming, but rather a learned outlook that they can unlearn and reject.

What can women do to mitigate risk, as it manifests as fear of failure?

Risk is not something you can avoid, but it’s something you can manage. Building lists of concrete actions to take, services to offer, price points, and people to serve will help with uncertainty about successful outcomes.

Another way to mitigate risk is to center yourself in the narrative of your business. At the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, before you have a recognizable brand, people will hire your firm because they want to work with you. Be credible, relatable, and vulnerable in your work, and use empathy to connect with your clients. All of these enable you to play your own game, which increases your chances of success.

There’s a great quote that says, “I will take that leap off a cliff; the person I become will catch me.” Entrepreneurship is one of the most exhilarating leaps you can take in your professional life, and now is the time to jump.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.