Women, their purposes for work and the deficit model in pandemic recovery discourse

March 8, 2022
Dr. Kara Whitman
Women, their purposes for work and the deficit model in pandemic recovery discourse

The COVID-19 pandemic - with its subsequent lockdowns and layoffs - cultivated yet another  environment where women have put resiliency on full display. Indeed, women across the country are participating in training, professional development and continuing education activities. Women are also becoming more involved in business incubation and the gig economy, establishing new networks and experimenting with new web-based communication and information-sharing platforms. These platforms are helping women examine their options and transform how they work. Moreover, where they work, when and for whom is being reframed.

These occurrences are not serendipitous. Rather, women are making thoughtful, deliberate and informed decisions - with precision.  They often do. Yet, an undercurrent in economic development discourse suggests otherwise. In fact, it is prioritizing declining labor participation rates for women as a main focal point in pandemic recovery. Within this undercurrent, the large number of newly available jobs is juxtaposed with the limited number of women applying to fill them. The often dismal benefits, relationships and requirements of these jobs are understated, as many public figures argue women should take whatever they can get. The ingenuity necessitated by their responsibilities, career interests, costs of living and even the future of work, is therefore set aside in this undercurrent. Ostensibly, what women are doing for themselves is being problematized, in order to validate assumptions.

For instance, many economists relied upon the assumption mothers would return to work when their children returned to school and unemployed women would return to their previous jobs or find new ones.  They are a male majority that neither validated these assumptions in the networks of everyday working women nor understood the many things women require from the workplace, which have begun to change. Further, their economic forecasts were produced from narrow models that claimed to predict when and where jobs would be filled. When they weren’t filled, neither the economists nor the models were held accountable - women were.

Indeed, women have been portrayed as sedentary - quietly contemplating new careers, staying home with school-age children and satisfied collecting unemployment insurance benefits, food stamps and other ‘employment disincentives.’ Furthermore, in a sedentary narrative, the time women take to pause, stocktake or adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic context, is interpreted as unproductive.  As a result, they are becoming infamous, as the model nods to ages old stereotypes of women as dependent and indecisive. In addition, this sedentary narrative obscures women’s positionality as resilient providers with savings, investments, assets and activities that have economic and intellectual value. The positive, long-term economic implications of their resilience are also deemphasized, in an unreliable standard of labor participation used as evidence of economic growth. This standard rests alongside projections of unskilled labor and low-paid roles, where women have been misrecognized. In sum, many economists assume women come to work for the same purposes they do and plan accordingly. Therefore, when women do the unexpected, economists don’t see the deficits in their models, rather they see deficits in women.  As a consequence, the issue of resiliency is peripheral to the discourse and lost to the current.

Discourse drives public opinion. It frames workforce issues and the knowledge gain workforce services will be expected to foster. Thus, as the narrative of women as sedentary permeates the discourse, it will center women’s knowledge of employment opportunities as the workforce imperative. In contrast, knowledge about the conditionalities that would make work more relevant, fulfilling and disaster-ready will be tangential.

Subsequently, how women feel about the work they do and how they define success, will be the workforce gap. The knowledge gain in this environment is therefore a correction, as women are led away from where they are toward where the model claims they should or could be.

Economic and pandemic recovery discourse is therefore underway, with minimal recognition for the range of women’s undertakings or respect for many of the things they value. Thus, the purpose of work is now called into question and the distance between it and the rush toward work placement, encapsulates the reason why the sedentary and resiliency narratives of women are opposed.

Women should not be required to exchange their current activities for something that looks more productive to others. This transaction is both condescending and disempowering. Conversely, service providers should be connecting women to each other, establishing mentoring programs for aspiring entrepreneurs and training to increase their digital presence. These training measures could include marketing, website development and social media engagement and are differentiated from many computer literacy courses, which are focused narrowly upon the skills women need to work for others. These actions also provide complementarity to the resiliency activities women are currently undertaking. Therefore, as increasing numbers of women navigate workforce services, providers must first forego the usual treatment - to serve them in isolation based upon a deficit model.

Indeed, their efforts should be focused upon augmenting women’s existing assets, diversifying income generation and reducing vulnerabilities to further economic shocks over the long term. Next, they must increase women’s representation in the senior leadership roles of workforce development organizations and their industry boards, partnerships with employers and service providers. Intentionality in these areas is the best way to disregard how many public figures and economists in pandemic recovery discourse have made women sound.


Dr. Kara Whitman is a Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) Volunteer at Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS). She is conducting research and assessments which will inform and expand REDI initiatives throughout the consortium. Kara specializes in education in emergencies and is leveraging her background to refine the networks and communication modes integral to our forthcoming workforce innovations. For Women’s History Month, she is participating in a dialogue with women executives, which prioritizes the concerns of women in the workforce space.