On International Women’s Day, the world celebrates the achievements of women. Although significant strides toward gender equality have been made over time, COVID-19 shines a spotlight on gender differences in the workforce.
The National Women’s Law Center reports that between February and October of 2020, women accounted for nearly 54% of total job losses in the U.S. And last September, when the new school year began, four times more women than men left the labor force.
“I think that we have broad anecdotal evidence of great impact and hardship on women because of [COVID-19] and the resulting impact on our economy, that many are calling the ‘she-cession,'” says Stacie Blake, CEO of YWCA Lancaster.
One possible reason for gender differences in people leaving the workforce is that women bear the brunt of caretaking responsibilities both for children and, Blake points out, for elderly family members.
A report by The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress states that in 2019, there were approximately 9.7 million working mothers with a child under the age of 6. There were an additional 14.7 million working mothers with children ages 6-17 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As childcare facilities and schools closed for safety during the pandemic, parents had to find ways to supervise young children during the workday, and often that responsibility is taken on by women.
Blake notes that YWCA Lancaster has been seeking candidates to fill open positions, and “when we have had conversations with potential candidates, we see that their barrier is that they are managing care for their children right now and remote schooling, otherwise they would be in the workforce.”
As parents in heterosexual couples decide who will shoulder the caretaking responsibilities and possibly leave their jobs, another factor may come into play: the gender wage gap. Overall, women earn less money than men.
A report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce states, “Women with the same college majors working in the same careers as men still only earn 92 cents for every dollar earned by men.” And a report from The Brookings Institution notes that women are more likely than men to hold low-paying jobs.
“Of course it would make sense, any family who’s trying to juggle and pay the bills might need to preserve the higher-wage worker at the expense of the lower-wage worker, which too often is a woman,” says Blake.
The coronavirus’s impacts on the workforce have not only exacerbated gender differences but also emphasized racial disparities.
The Brookings report notes that pre-pandemic data showed that the share of white women earning low wages was 40%, while 54% of Black women and 64% of Hispanic or Latina women held low-wage positions.
Women’s unemployment rates also reflect racial disparities. In September, the unemployment rates for Black and Latina women were more than twice as high as their pre-pandemic unemployment rates, according to the National Women’s Law Center report. And the report states, “In September, the unemployment rates for Black women and Latinas were more than one and a half times higher than the rate for white men.”
When forced to choose between health and safety or employment, Blake says it makes sense to prioritize people’s health, as complicated as that decision may be.