What gives me hope on International Women’s Day
When I travel around the world, I try to spend time with women leaders in different organizations, industries, and walks of life. In the time we have together, I try to learn about their hopes and dreams. In those conversations, I hear both a desire to think big about the future and a struggle to balance the commitments and responsibilities that fall almost exclusively to women.
The numbers are clear: the percentage of the women participating in the global labor force is declining.
Less than half (47.292%) of all females ages 15+ are estimated to have participated in the labor force in 2019, according to data from the International Labour Organization and World Bank. This is a decrease from 1990, when 51.186% of females participated in the labor force.
COVID-19 seems to have accelerated this troubling trend. More than 5 million women have lost their jobs between February 2020 and December 2020, according to the US Labor Department. That is 55% of all net US job losses in that time period. As of December 2020, there were three working mothers unemployed for every father who had lost a job, and women accounted for the entirety of all 140,000 net jobs the US economy shed in December 2020.
It’s easy to despair in the face of this data. I recently wrote about steps we can take to recover from the last year. Today, I want to share three stories that make me hopeful that we can collectively achieve gender parity.
Growing institutional support. In the United Kingdom, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport established the UK’s regional Digital Skills Partnerships (DSPs). The DSPs have helped bring together public, private and charity sector organizations to help increase digital capabilities across England. The local DSP in West Midlands has already collaborated with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and our collaborating organization, Generation, to expand opportunities in the region to learn digital skills.
Changing attitudes. In December, I had the pleasure of sitting down with former PepsiCo CEO and chairperson, and Amazon board member, Indra Nooyi. Indra shared many valuable insights, including one funny—and educational—childhood story. In Indra’s words:
“When I was a young kid, I’ve played in an all-girls’ rock band, believe it or not. You know, I’m surprised that my parents allowed me to play in this rock band let alone play the guitar on my own. Now, it was not a very good rock band, but who cares? I thought my aunts and my uncles were all very conservative and old, would sort of look down upon me and say, to my parents: ‘How dare you allow her to do this?’ Instead, I found them humming the tunes. I found them telling other people: ‘Guess what, our niece is in a rock band.’ So maybe, you know, I was a part of this change in society.”
Indra’s story spoke to a larger point: that changing attitudes can change the trajectory of a young woman’s life. As Indra says, “I grew up not in a wealthy family nor a good middle-class Indian family, but the men in my family, my father, my grandfather, insisted the girls be educated. They insisted that the girls go as far as they want to go.”
Individual ambition. In my role overseeing AWS’s Training and Certification efforts, I am humbled to see women from all backgrounds take the courageous step of learning new skills and start new careers in cloud computing. Take Renee Urbanowicz, who participated in AWS re/Start, a free full-time, 12-week skills development program that prepares unemployed or underemployed individuals for careers in cloud computing—with no need to have prior tech experience.
Renee, who lives in Australia, decided to learn cloud computing after taking a few years off of work to take care of her family.
“As a new mom, getting back into the workforce seemed quite daunting,” Renee said. “However, the AWS re/Start program has provided opportunities I didn’t think were possible. I’m extremely excited to further my training and knowledge and begin my new career in the cloud computing industry.”
Reversing the declining participation of women in the workforce is an effort that requires effort, investment, and collaboration every day of the year. On International Women’s Day, I hope these stories offer a hopeful glimpse at a future we can achieve together.