In February, I reached out to my network of women in leadership roles in the workforce development ecosystem. The challenge we agreed to take up during Women’s History Month was to bring focus to the myriad of issues that impact women and work. We decided to do this because we agreed that there are just far too many rooms full of male voices that seek to define policy and perspective, establishing the rules of engagement for Post Pandemic Recovery without a real understanding of its impact on women.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “recovery” as “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength” or “the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.” Accordingly, pandemic recovery then is either a return to “normal” or a return to “control”? With that definition, I wonder how pre pandemic “normal” is defined and by whom? Or, perhaps more interesting, what was the thing that was stolen or lost that we must regain control of? My guess is “normal” but as an idea “normal” feels unreachable and incorporeal.
To answer my questions, I return to women like my Aunt Mary, who reminded me early into the pandemic that this was her second lifetime pandemic. The first, polio. During that pandemic, she said she would sit on the stoop outside my grandparents’ apartment – which was as far away as she was allowed to wander. For her, returning to “normal” meant venturing out into the world to explore and become.
As the world recovered, my Aunt Mary left my grandparent’s stoop and became a teacher. My mother-in-law, Marie Perry, lived through polio, too. She became a nurse, working for decades in long term care, giving her life to an industry that refused to pay her what she was worth. Both moved beyond “normal” into respectable, womanly jobs.
Today, normal for nurses and teachers is at the front line of COVID and many are burnt out and leaving the profession behind. What will recovery look like for them? What return to “normal” can they count on? What more will be asked of them?
Work, for women, has always required more. More sacrifice, more time, more “more-ness”. The Covid pandemic created space for some women to look at that “more” and wonder how it could benefit them. What might be beyond the stoop? For other women, the act of wondering about “more-ness” remains beyond reach. Their days are a tumult of more children to be taught, more bills to be paid, and more dishes to be done. For these women, making it til tomorrow is a Venusian feat.
I wonder if, rather than returning to normal, pandemics are meant to help us transform normal. Like forest fires that burn away the forest floor, do pandemics force human societies to find new ways to heal and grow? My conclusion: life should not be the same on the other side. There is no return to normal.
Instead, we are establishing a new normal. To get there, we are asking hard questions, humbly considering the challenged paths, and reaching out to be with our sisters who are holding it together with bubble gum and pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. What does this future of work look like? How will women participate and how will they change or disrupt the narrative?
It’s time to move off the stoop to find out.
Tracey Carey is the Executive Director of Midwest Urban Strategies, a consortium of high-performing urban workforce development boards organized to discover, develop and share best practices; build the capacity of the systems’ leadership; and bring resources that support economic growth and workforce pipeline development and advancement.