The Pandemic Is Squeezing Women Out of the Workforce

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The coronavirus pandemic has heaped potentially unprecedented pressure on parents. In March and April, many found themselves suddenly forced to juggle Zoom school and 24/7 child care, on top of more meal prep and more cleaning and, in some cases, navigating a remote work day from the kitchen table. That these new, interlocking responsibilities have taken the heaviest toll on women, squeezing them out of the workforce, is a pattern we can see unfolding in real time. But the result, according to experts who recently spoke with the New York Times, may be a yawning gender gap that persists for generations.

“We are creating inequality 20 years down the line that is even greater than we have today,” Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, told the Times. “This is how inequality begets inequality.”

As stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country this spring, industries made up predominantly of women — retail, hospitality, health care, then state and local government — were the first to suffer, with stores and restaurants closing, and non-essential medical services largely postponed. The pandemic’s economic implications fanned out, slashing tens of millions of jobs, even as schools and daycare centers remained closed. Now, parents also had care work to contend with. But for women in particular, the situation presents a perfect storm of intersecting circumstances that, to quote the Times, is “not just pushing women out of jobs they held, but also preventing many from seeking new ones.”

Per the U.S. Labor Department, there were 4.5 million fewer women employed in October 2020 compared with this time last year. While the Times notes that the overall unemployment rate improved slightly for women last month, at 6.5 percent, Black (9.2 percent) and Latina women (9 percent) fared far worse than white women. But in many cases, it still seems to be kids keeping women from working: An August survey from the Census Bureau notes that one in five employment-age respondents who were not working cited the pandemic’s disruption of their child-care plan. Women were roughly three times as likely to give that response compared to men.

Recent numbers also suggest that women are increasingly quitting their jobs to accommodate caregiving needs. According to a recent National Women’s Law Center report, 865,000 women — or 80 percent of the total employee pool — left the labor force between August and September, as many schools nationwide grappled with the prospect of another semester of virtual learning. As Stevenson recently pointed out to the New Yorker, the vast majority of that group clustered in age ranges — 35 to 44 — most likely to have school-age kids at home.

For people who cannot work from home, and for those who work hourly jobs, often without benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave, the question of continued child-care obligations becomes especially unsustainable. It creates financial obstacles that only grow with time, slashing the ability to save. As Jezebel notes, the eventual ability to return to work will likely still require some parents to cover outside child-care costs. Without some kind of safety net in place to offer parents support whenever the time comes to reopen safely, the fear is that these cycles will cement themselves, sidelining women to domestic roles, and entrenching poverty. Still, as Stevenson told the New Yorker, this moment also presents opportunity for overdue change.

“We’ve spent 50 years talking about child care as if it were a personal problem, and we’re finally talking about it as a social problem and realizing how important it is for society,” she said. “And I think that we’re on the cusp of potentially rethinking how people work, and how they take care of their families, and what kind of support they want from the government … This isn’t going to be the last time we see large fractions of people who become unemployed. And hopefully we’re going to be able to manage it better in the future.”

The Pandemic Is Squeezing Women Out of the Workforce