Unemployment during pandemic highlights need for more support for working women

Isabella Schreiber/Staff

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One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing improved employment figures for women. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The dual shocks of employment and child care loss continue to threaten decades of progress in women’s labor market participation and earnings.

A much larger number of women lost their jobs at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a departure from previous recessions when men experienced higher unemployment. That’s because women are more likely to work in service industries — such as hotels, restaurants, public administration, personal services such as nail salons and barbershops and education — that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

By our analysis, more than half of women in California were employed in these service industries before the pandemic, compared to less than one-third of men. But between February 2020 and December 2020, more than 80% of the total job losses in California were in those industries.

Although the national unemployment rate for women was lower than men before the current economic crisis, women’s unemployment rate surpassed men’s by over two percentage points between April 2020 and June 2020. Long periods of unemployment or separation from the labor force, particularly among working mothers of young children, could have long-term consequences for women’s economic security and gender equity in the labor market.

The closures of school and child care facilities have also had an extraordinary effect on women’s employment. Despite some shifts in gender roles over time, mothers still bear the brunt of child care responsibilities. And because women’s average earnings remain lower than men’s, many mothers, rather than fathers, found themselves taking on the lion’s share of the additional child care burden at home after in-person schools and child care facilities began to close.

Between March 2020 and April 2020, about 3.5 million mothers living with school-age children in the United States left active work by taking paid or unpaid leave, losing their job or deciding to leave the labor market entirely. That represented a decline of 21.1 percentage points in the proportion of women who were actively working.

In contrast, the proportion of fathers who were actively working only dropped by 14.7 percentage points. This gap narrowed or closed by last November. In some ways, this mirrors regular seasonal patterns in mothers’ employment, as many mothers reduce their hours or stop working during children’s summer recess from school. However, the pandemic has extended mothers’ time away from paid work, which is potentially more harmful to their long-term employment and earnings prospects.

The good news is, women’s employment is recovering quickly. By February 2021, the national unemployment rate for women — 6.1% — had dropped below the rate for men — 7.0%. Women who previously dropped out of the labor force are also returning.

Although the gender gap in employment is now closer to what it was before the pandemic, the recession is far from over. In January 2021, 1.2 million more mothers were still unemployed compared to the same period last year. For those who have returned to work, the time they spent unemployed may have long-term impacts on their opportunities to advance into higher-paying positions and could lead to a larger wage gap between women and men down the road.

In addition, recovery has not been the same for all women — women of color still face much higher unemployment rates compared to white women. For the fourth quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate was 8.9% for Black women, 7.4% for Asian women and 8.8% for Latinx women, compared to only 5.5% for white women.

Over the past few decades, the United States has made real gains in reducing the wage gap between women and men and bringing more women into the labor force. These advancements have not just meant better economic outcomes for women; when more women are working and contributing their skills and talents, our entire economy grows and we all benefit.

But the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have exposed, in stark relief, the extent to which gender inequality remains deeply embedded in our society. As we are looking for ways to grow and recover our economy, this also presents us with an enormous opportunity.

There are many women who would start working, or work more hours, if they had access to affordable child care or if balancing work and child care was more manageable. Adopting expansive policies, such as universal child care and guaranteed paid leave, that address the structural barriers preventing or discouraging women from working would allow us to more fully tap into the potential productive capacity of women. And that’s important because when women succeed, we all do.

Sarah Thomason and Kuochih Huang are researchers at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.