A growing divide


“There’s no historic parallel for what’s happening here for women. We have nothing to compare it to—not the 2008 recession or the Great Depression,” said Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the U.S. labor force in ways that will take years from which to recover. We continue to struggle with an economic recession, increasing COVID-19 infection rates, and related disruptions to daily life. 

Long term unemployment, uncertain child care, and schooling arrangements renewed shutdowns across the county, and decreased consumer confidence have resulted in large numbers of workers leaving the workforce. Those leaving are disproportionately women. 

According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics September jobs report, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force between August and September, compared to 216,000 men exiting the workforce during the same period.

Recently released results from an annual survey by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In found that one in four women are considering reducing hours, shifting to part-time roles, switching to less demanding jobs, taking leaves of absence, or leaving the workforce entirely.     

Industries such as healthcare, education, service, and hospitality which are largely female-dominated have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

By April nearly 72% of housekeepers surveyed had reported losing their client base. This spring, when governments ordered shutdowns and restaurants lost dine-in customers nearly overnight, they were forced to furlough their servers—roughly 70% of whom were women.

Over the summer as states reopened some jobs returned, however, the present surge in COVID-19 cases and renewed restrictions on restaurants, bars, and travel have many officials expecting a new wave of unemployment claims.

For women still working, the rapid shift to online-only or hybrid schooling this spring brought new challenges. Throughout the pandemic, absent the help of child care centers or schools, the responsibilities of caring for and educating children has fallen disproportionately on women.  With coronavirus cases rising across the country, districts that had resumed in-person classes are now shifting back to distance learning, often with little notice to families.

According to the McKinsey & Co. and Lean In survey, this fall twice as many working mothers said they were concerned about their job performance because of their caretaking responsibilities. For single mothers, whose incomes are the sole support for their families, these challenges are even greater. 

Beyond just the personal toll, analysts are concerned the recent labor force changes will have a profound impact on women’s progress. Gender pay equity will likely stall, if not decrease. The number of women achieving management and executive-level roles may also decrease. And on an individual level, the decision to exit the workforce this year will likely have a life-long impact on women’s professional and financial goals. 

These changes will also have a significant impact on businesses. A study by Pepperdine University that spanned 19 years and 215 companies found a strong correlation between the representation of women in the workforce and business profitability. 

And then there are the broader economic implications. Fewer people participating in the labor market generally correlates to a lower economic output, which in turn will likely depress and delay longer-term economic recovery.   

According to a recent United Nations study, the pandemic induced combined impacts of a slowing economy, job losses and lack of social protections are likely to push between 71 million and 135 million people into extreme poverty globally. In the United States, the poverty rate was 16.7% as of September, an increase of 1.4% since February of this year.

Increases in poverty rates are expected to further worsen gender poverty gaps, especially for people aged 25 to 34—prime reproductive years. New poverty forecasts are indicating that the number of women living in poverty is expected to rise as much as 9.1% by 2021 as a result of COVID-19 related factors. 

As winter approaches and new public health measures are enacted in an effort to restrain further spread of the coronavirus, people continue to struggle. Businesses face a new round of closures, some of which may become permanent without additional financial support. Federal government aid programs are set to expire by year’s end and legislators in Washington seem unable to work together to provide the stimulus funding economists say is necessary. 

On a local level, county and state officials are exploring ways to lessen the blow, tapping into already strapped budgets to support small businesses, with the hope that they, in turn, will be able to support their workers. 

It will take time for us to learn just how much this pandemic has changed our way of life, but early indicators are that it has had a profound impact on working people, especially women, which will leave us divided in so many ways.