The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequality in the workforce for millions of American women. First there was that alarming statistic: of the 140,000 jobs lost last December, all of them were held by women. Specifically, women lost 156,000 jobs while men gained 16,000.
While economists warn against putting too much stock into a single month, women ended 2020 with 5.4 million fewer jobs than they had in February, before the pandemic began. Comparably, men lost 4.4 million jobs over that same period.
There are additional significant racial disparities among women, with the pandemic disproportionately impacting women of color in the workforce. Latinas currently have the highest unemployment rate at 9.1%, followed by Black women at 8.4%, while white women have the lowest unemployment rate at 5.7%.
There are several factors contributing to this inequity. During a virtual panel with members of Congress, Representative Rosa DeLauro put it this way: “women are not opting out of the work force, they are being pushed by inadequate policies.”
Women, especially Black and Latina women, disproportionately work in the industries that have laid off or furloughed more employees in response to covid-19. The three major sectors experiencing these job losses are education, hospitality, and retail.
Women are also more likely to work in roles that lack flexibility. Black and Latina women specifically are disproportionately impacted, as they more frequently work in roles that lack paid sick leave and the ability to work from home.
The closure of schools and childcare centers also disproportionately impacted women. Parents were forced to monitor the home schooling of the children, and for the vast majority, the burden fell on the mom. In September, when the school year resumed, four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force. For women with jobs that lacked flexibility, the increased caregiving responsibilities forced them to exit the workforce.
Women are also disproportionately owners of small businesses that benefit from foot-traffic, and have therefore been disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic. During the pandemic, women-owned business have had larger net losses in their headcounts and slower recoveries than men-owned businesses.
Economists have suggested that unless significant action is taken, this loss will result in significant damage to the economy and to gender equality in the workforce for decades to come.Earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris wrote an op-ed on the exodus of women from the workforce, describing the situation as a “national emergency.” The Biden administration has proposed a plan to address the needs of women workers, including $3,000 in tax credits issued to families for each child, a $40 billion investment in child care assistance and an extension of unemployment benefits. The administration’s relief proposal would also focus on reopening K-12 schools, a major component of child care.
The House Budget Committee is considering the legislation today, with the full House possibly passing the legislation as soon as next week. Whether the legislation will survive through the Senate, where Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote from their party, remains to be seen.