By Delegate Brooke Lierman
The final major event of the 2020 General Assembly session was a 100th anniversary event of suffrage during Women’s History Month – and then the world stopped and session ended early for the first time in 150 years. In a way, women’s forward progress in the workforce stopped as well – for the first time in a generation, women’s participation in the workforce plummeted.
Now, as we emerge from some of the most challenging years we have had in a generation, the rallying cry cannot be for a simple “return to normal.” We cannot not pretend that the pre-pandemic “normal” was working for American women, particularly Black women. For Maryland to meet its potential, we cannot afford to leave women out of this recovery. In the next economy that we build, they must be central.
Women outnumbered men in the workforce before the pandemic, but even in the early days of March 2020 it was clear that was going to change. Women in America, who still bear the brunt of child-raising duties, were forced to make impossible choices between earning wages and putting their family’s health at risk or staying home without a family supporting income. The result? Women, most notably Black women, lost far more jobs than men during the pandemic – nearly one million more. And even as men returned to the workforce en masse in 2021, many women continued to stay home, hampered by the uncertainty of remote public schools and scarce childcare.
As recently as a few months ago, Black women’s unemployment rate was twice the rate of white women and more than 1 in 4 women currently outside of the labor force have been unemployed for more than six months.
The unemployment rates for white Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos declined in December 2021. The unemployment rate for Black Americans, however, increased from 6.5% in November to 7.1% in December – almost entirely because unemployment increased for Black women. This is a huge challenge not just for today’s employers and for women and their families, but also for our future economy and communities everywhere. If we don’t take urgent action to reverse this trend and support women – especially women of color – we will feel the negative repercussions for decades.
The stakes are high. We need an urgent, collaborative approach to improve the conditions of working women and address the impacts COVID-19 has had on our lives.
Support Unions. Simply put, women must earn more. Expanding the minimum wage in Maryland was long overdue, but it is not enough. The recent expansion of labor organizing is a boon for all workers, but especially for women. Women in unions make higher wages and wages that are more equal to men’s wages. Black women in union jobs typically make nearly $25 more per week than Black women non-union workers, and Latina women make 40% more. More union jobs means more well-paid women.
Expand Child Care Access. Quality, affordable child care helps women earn a living and increase our financial stability and wealth, but our child care system is broken – even for women who can afford it, finding care is difficult – and expensive. This year the General Assembly will work to pass legislation that increases scholarships, loans and grants for childcare in Maryland. This is legislation I will work forcefully to pass. But with the cost of childcare outpacing women’s wages, we must do more in bringing the public and private sector to the table to find solutions and prioritize child care as a key pillar of our state’s economic success.
Build Black Women-Owned Businesses. Supporting women to become their own business owners is key to building a strong economy and to creating generational wealth, especially for Black and Latina women. The pandemic saw many women leave 9-to-5 jobs out of necessity and now they are using their talents to create their own companies.
Nationally, the number of women-owned businesses is growing at twice the rate of businesses nationwide and Black women represent the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the banking support isn’t there for them: loan approvals for women-owned businesses are 15-20 percent lower than approvals for men and an incredible 61 percent of Black women are forced to self-fund their business as opposed to 47 percent of white women and 32 percent of men.
Billions in federal dollars for infrastructure projects are on the way to Maryland. We must be intentional in working with our Black and women-owned businesses to ensure they can access these procurement dollars and build businesses that generate wealth for them, their families and their communities.
We are at a critical moment in women’s history. What we do now will determine whether we return to a normal that left women behind, or forge a new path that lifts all boats by putting women at the center of our economic recovery. The pandemic showed just how essential women are to our lives and livelihoods. If we want Maryland to succeed, then its women must thrive.
Brooke Lierman is a state delegate representing District 46 (Baltimore City) and a candidate for Maryland State Comptroller. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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