The coronavirus pandemic continues its attack on working women, new data shows. Despite women’s invaluable role in U.S. recovery during previous recessions, new demands on families and professionals from COVID-19 are falling even more squarely on women’s shoulders this time around. Some economists are calling this phenomenon the first “female recession.” They say the jobs, income and career development women are losing today as a result of the coronavirus could hold back significant economic growth for the entire next generation of America’s working women.
The Labor Department’s data is bleak, and, of course, dictated not only by gender but by ethnicity. Unemployment for Black and Hispanic women as of September 2020 hovered at around 11%. For white women, those numbers drop to 6.9%. (Just 6.5% of white men are currently unemployed.)
The impact of COVID-19 on women’s jobs
An August 2020 Northwestern University faculty reportreveals that men have historically bore the brunt of economic recessions, but 2020 is different. This time, it’s women who have likely experienced the sharpest employment losses due to COVID-19, primarily because their work is heavily concentrated in the most affected business sectors (such as hospitality and education) and increased childcare needs have fallen disproportionately on their shoulders.
In April, Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) outlined the lopsided impact of the pandemic in a statement.
“Last month’s shattering job losses make clear that women are in the bullseye of this pandemic,” she said. “In leisure, hospitality, education, health care and retail — the sectors that are getting hit the hardest — women are the ones who are falling victim to the first massive waves of this economic crisis.”
Race also plays an important, intersectional role. Even as unemployment numbers struggle to improve, black workers face a disproportionate struggle, returning to the workforce at half the rate as their white counterparts.
The brunt of COVID-19 on working mothers — and the downside of flexible schedules
Besides facing extreme unemployment, women between the ages of 25 and 54 are also dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate simply to care for their children. Because women earn less than men on average, they’re often the ones who elect to stay home. The gap between men and women who elect to work was at its narrowest ever immediately before the pandemic hit, Bloomberg reports. Now, it’s growing again as children participating in remote learning require added supervision and help. Two out of three informal, unpaid caregivers in the U.S. are women, according to the CDC. And September census data reports that 7 million Americans aren’t employed because they are instead taking care of their children.
Companies’ efforts to help parents continue working while also prioritizing their families have come with caveats. Work flexibility and accommodations that let employees who have to take care of family members work untraditional hours can mean women are not present in key meetings and presentations when the majority of big decisions and connections are being made.
Finding childcare is also difficult because the childcare industry itself has also experienced job loss. Although the question of another stimulus check remains unanswered, House Democrats have proposed legislation that would offer aid to schools and childcare centers while giving some parents temporary paid leave.
The gender pay gap’s economic impact
The wage gap is a continuing — and highly significant — component of these COVID-19 inequities. Last month, census data showed that between 2018 and 2019, the U.S. had made zero progress on closing the gender pay gap overall. Bloomberg reports that millennial-age women in particular — many of whom also have young children — are experiencing some of the most severe setbacks. After an economic recession, the wage gap could widen to as much as 2%.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has also discussed, as early on in the pandemic as May, how the lowest-paid individuals — often women and people of color have endured the worst of the pandemic due to the fact that lowest-paid professionals tend to be women and people of color
“The people who are getting hurt the worst are the most recently hired, the lowest paid people,” he said in a May 17 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes. “It’s women to an extraordinary extent … of the people who were working in February who were making less than $40,000 per year, almost 40% have lost their jobs in the last month or so. Extraordinary statistic. So that’s who’s really bearing the brunt of this.”
NWLC’s Emily Martin issued a statement confirming Powell’s concern:
“At this moment of a pandemic and a recession, it’s especially bitter news for these women who are shortchanged the most,” she said. “One third of Black women are essential workers who are keeping the country going, but the wage gap robs them of thousands of dollars each year. And over a 40-year career, many women of color stand to lose more than a million dollars. Imagine if those lost wages were available to them now. This is life-changing money — and women and their families can’t afford inaction on equal pay any longer.”
Gender unemployment gaps are not only hurting women, but also the entire economy. McKinsey & Co. says global gross domestic product may be $1 trillion less in 2030 than it could be without the gendered gap.
“The evidence from our research is clear,” McKinsey said in its report. “What is good for greater gender equality is also good for the economy and society as a whole.”