February 1, 2021

When Women Lose All the Jobs: Essential Actions for a Gender-Equitable Recovery

“Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” – sociologist Jessica Calarco

The tumultuous year of 2020 may be over, but the coronavirus pandemic and the significant financial insecurity facing many women and their families are not. As the year closed out, the nation’s employment numbers for December revealed that the nonfarm payroll job losses for the month were entirely borne by women. This development, while unique to December, is emblematic of the disproportionate damage to women’s employment that occurred during the year: Women and their families, who were already treading water before the pandemic, are bearing the brunt of this crisis.

Over the course of the first 10 months of the pandemic, women—particularly women of color—have lost more jobs than men as industries dominated by women have been hit the hardest. Overall, women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the recession—nearly 1 million more job losses than men. The job losses in December are a stark illustration of these trends: Black, Hispanic, and Asian women accounted for all of women’s job losses that month, and 154,000 Black women dropped out of the labor force entirely. This push of job losses, combined with the pull of increased caregiving at home, has created a recession in which more women have been affected, leading Dr. C. Nicole Mason to dub it the first ever “she-cession.” Congress and the federal government’s failure to act immediately has only further jeopardized families’ fragile economic security and has the potential to create lasting harm for women’s careers and the U.S. economy as a whole.

But these outcomes are not inevitable. They are the result of policymakers’ choices—frequently choices not to fix systemic inequalities, modernize workplace standards, create a robust social safety net, or invest in caregiving. The COVID-19 recession is different from past economic downturns and will require different solutions than traditional recovery responses. Women and their families urgently need bold, structural policy changes that prioritize their economic security in order to ensure a broad and deep recovery—one on which the success of the entire U.S. economy rests. Lawmakers seeking to create a gender-equitable recovery must pass immediate COVID-19 relief and effective, permanent policies outlined in this brief that support women’s work and caregiving in the long term, including:

  1. Creating a robust care infrastructure
  2. Ensuring fair and equal wages and quality benefits
  3. Creating strong workplace protections

Without these progressive solutions, the status quo will continue, further damaging women’s progress and U.S. economic growth.

Women were already struggling to manage work and care before the pandemic

Before the pandemic-induced recession, economic precarity was already a reality for many women and their families. In 2018, 21.4 million women lived in poverty. Nearly 11 million children—14.4 percent of all children under age 18—lived in poverty in 2019. Women’s participation in the labor force had not yet returned to its 2000 peak by the time the coronavirus pandemic began, and workers faced slow wage growth, which failed to keep up with the growth in productivity.

Women’s work has also been historically undervalued, as long-standing gender biases and inequalities contribute to the segregation of women into low-wage occupations and the persistent gender wage gap. In 2019, the median annual earnings for women working full time, year-round was $47,299, or 82 percent of men’s earnings. Most women of color—particularly Black, Hispanic, and Native American women—experience a wider wage gap due to the persistence of intersecting gender, race, and ethnic biases. These groups are also disproportionately concentrated in jobs in the service and care sectors, which are often considered essential but poorly paid.

Women’s lower earnings are connected, in part, to the primary role that they play caring for their families. Women are more likely to be shouldered with a wide range of family caregiving responsibilities—including caring for children at home, handling household needs, coordinating appointments and activities, and more—causing them to pay an economic price. Many working women—including the 64.2 percent of mothers who were the primary or co-breadwinners for their families in 2017—lack access to supportive work-family policies to enable them to participate fully in the labor force while managing their caregiving responsibilities. Large numbers of women worked part time in 2019: 17.3 million in total, which was nearly double the number of men working part time. And 84 percent of these women worked part time for noneconomic reasons, such as family responsibilities. Women are left in this precarious position because of a lack of U.S. policies to support both work and care, which is rooted in long-standing assumptions and often racist and sexist stereotypes that devalue women’s roles and expect women to juggle it all.

Child care has long been severely underfunded, leaving child care providers with razor-thin budget margins, child care workers with low pay, and many families without access to affordable, quality care. The United States is also an extreme international outlier in failing to ensure workers have access to any form of paid leave. In 2020, only 21 percent of civilian workers had access to paid family leave to care for their families, and Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than white workers to have access. The lack of affordable child care and comprehensive paid family and medical leave costs workers and their families $28.9 billion in wages each year, and this number has likely risen during the pandemic.

These challenges are especially hard for many women of color, who are more likely to work in jobs that pay less, have fewer benefits, and have less access to child care while navigating the combined effects of racial, ethnic, and gender bias. Although women of color often perform essential work in the economy, they are rarely treated with the dignity such work deserves. At the same time, they provide vital financial support that their families rely on to make ends meet. More than two-thirds of Black mothers and 41.4 percent of Latina mothers were primary breadwinners for their families in 2018, compared with 37 percent of white mothers. Black, Asian, and Hispanic women have higher rates of labor force participation than white women due to long-standing expectations that they work outside the home—often in jobs providing care to white families—but they are less likely to have access to paid leave and workplace flexibility to manage their caregiving responsibilities.

The coronavirus economic crisis has harmed women the most

Women have been the most severely affected by the pandemic-induced recession, from job losses to caregiving challenges. The long-standing lack of policies or a social safety net to support women and families combined with the chaotic and deeply flawed management of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic recession have only pushed millions of women into further financial hardship.

The pandemic-induced recession is the first to cost women more jobs than men

The outsize impact of this recession on women has been clear and dramatic from the start. Every previous recession has affected the financial markets or goods-producing sectors, where men hold the majority of jobs, contributing to their disproportionate job loss. The coronavirus-induced recession is different: It has primarily hit the service sector, where women are overrepresented, partly due to persistent occupational segregation. What’s more, caregiving responsibilities have forced more women than men out of the labor force. These combined crises mean that for the first time ever, women have lost the majority of jobs during a recession.

The shutdowns and physical distancing required by the pandemic and the corresponding decline in economic activity have affected certain industries—often low-wage jobs with high-customer interaction—in which women are disproportionately employed. The latest surge in cases looks set to amplify these trends in the coming months. As Americans stopped traveling and staying at hotels, attending live entertainment, and eating out at bars and restaurants, employees in the leisure and hospitality industry—53 percent of whom were women—saw the greatest job losses, accounting for nearly 2 in 5 jobs lost in the recession. Similarly, as schools closed and moved to virtual learning, child care providers shut down, and nonessential health procedures were paused, workers in the education and health services industry—where women represent a staggering 77 percent of employees—saw significant job losses, representing 13 percent of total jobs lost in the recession. With a reduction in tax revenue, federal, state, and local government employees also experienced major job losses. This was particularly devastating for women, who constituted 58 percent of government employees, and Black women in particular, who made up nearly 18 percent of public sector workers—triple their share in the total workforce.

Overall, women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic-induced recession compared with 4.4 million lost by men. This equates to women only recovering 55 percent of the 12.1 million jobs they lost at the beginning of the pandemic. Among unemployed women ages 20 and older, nearly 2 in 5 have been out of work for six months or longer.

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