In 2012, I wrote a book called The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. The chipper book jacket reads, “At this unprecedented moment, women are no longer merely gaining on men; they have pulled ahead by almost every measure.” The optimism! The smugness! The tragic naïveté! I suppose even back then I understood, somewhere deep down, that this was a high-wire act. American women had made it to half the workforce with negligible institutional support and no cultural upheaval. That kind of miracle is hard to sustain. And we didn’t sustain it. The pandemic landed us back at our lowest workforce-participation levels since 1988. That was the year of Working Girl, when, in the grand finale, our heroine marvels at her drab new office like it’s the Taj Mahal. It was the year of the easy office-sitcom gag “Where’s the ladies’ room?” (haha, there isn’t one!). It’s a very far distance to fall.
It’s now painfully obvious that the mass entry of women into the workforce was rigged from the beginning. American work culture has always conspired to keep professional women out and working-class women shackled. Add to that late capitalism’s stagnant wages, making it nearly impossible to support a family on one salary. As with so many things, the pandemic just exposed what should have been obvious all along.
The recent employment wipeout dates to September 2020, when 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, compared with 216,000 men. What complex confluence of demographic shifts converged at that critical time? School started. Parents of little kids had already experimented in the previous school year with trying to do their own work while serving as teachers’ assistants and realized it was impossible. When September came around, they wisely opted for just one of those jobs.
And by “they,” I mean “she.” Misty Heggeness, a research economist at the U.S. Census Bureau, has been tracking young families week by week, state by state. “The impact on short-term work productivity and engagement appeared to be borne entirely on the backs of mothers of school-age children,” she reported. There is real pathos and humanity behind these numbers. Two heterosexual working parents decide to scrape by for the year rather than let their children miss out. The mother feels that maybe she is more “patient.” The father confesses that even though they’re his children, he feels like he’s “babysitting.” Neither of them wants to quit, but it’s understood between them that she could better handle the blow. Or maybe she feels lucky that, as a woman, she has a plan B. She can quit and take care of the kids and no one will judge.
Despite the tragedy of it all, you may start to feel that these individual decisions about who should stay home make intuitive sense. Resist that urge. They really don’t. I challenge any pastor, rabbi, or imam — or geneticist — to make a convincing case for why only women can fix broken Zoom links and do simple arithmetic. Or, for that matter, why men should spend less time with their children. Just to be clear, I wouldn’t flinch or judge or even notice if any individual woman decided to stay home. But when 865,000 of them make the same decision in one month, I get suspicious. It can’t be that popular.
In a hopeful moment, I wondered if this was just a temporary glitch. If we can time-travel 32 years in eight months, then maybe we can time-travel back that distance when it’s all over. But Sarah Jane Glynn, who co-wrote the best paper I’ve read on this subject, assured me that’s wishful thinking. The jobs that allowed women to dominate the workforce are the ones that are predicted to take the longest to recover — mostly retail and service jobs. Women who provide child care get to work again only after professional women fully reenter the workforce, which could take a while.
What’s more likely to happen is a backward cascade. A woman who’s a lawyer misses a year and now she doesn’t have quite enough years left to make partner. A woman who works at a day-care center can only manage babysitting here and there because she has to be home with her own children. She makes hardly any money this year, falls behind, and struggles in retirement. Multiply that by 800,000 or so and that’s a lot of lost CEOs and comfortably retired women. “Hard-won progress on closing the gender wage gap may also be set back decades,” Glynn and her co-authors write.
When we talk about the wage gap, the deeper, rotten core is not the 70-cents-to-the-dollar disparity but the difference in work disruptions. One study found that women who took just one year out of the workforce had annual earnings that were 39 percent lower than those of women who didn’t. Black women, for example, have higher rates of work participation than white women, but they have much higher rates of work disruptions. It’s like working in quicksand: You will never, ever, be able to get ahead.
A curious thing happens to humans in crisis. When the world feels shaky in one area, we tend to double down on certainty in another. If we want to be generous with ourselves, we can say that’s what happened in September. We were scared, so we drifted back to ’80s ideas about what men and women are capable of. I remember, at the start of the pandemic, reading a story that had gone viral about a Japanese couple. The father said he was pulling his weight at home, so the mother made a list of all her daily tasks: 210 to his 21. A silver lining to the disaster, we thought! Fathers would be home and working, so they would be forced to inhabit what it means to keep both of those things in your head at once. And then, when it was all over, everything would change. I miss those early days. At least back then, we were still in the right decade.
*This article appears in the February 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!