In late 2019, a headline in The Hill trumpeted the fact that women made up the majority of the workforce.
What a difference a little more than six months makes. A recent LaborIQ analysis conducted by ThinkWhy noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2020 numbers, women’s unemployment rate stood at 14.3% versus 11.9% for men.
Why? The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many women out of the workforce through layoffs, furloughs and voluntary departure due to child care duties at home. The headlines have gone from women as a workforce majority power to women who are losing workforce gains.
The question is whether the current scenario is an economic blip or a potentially long-term problem. “There are so many pandemic-related factors contributing to unemployment this time around that weren’t the case during the Great Recession, and women are the ones picking up the slack,” said Nikki Silvestri, a senior advisor at investment advisory firm JumpScale.
2020 unemployment rates for women vs. men
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) also pointed out that unemployment figures from mid-May 2020 to mid-June 2020 indicated women held six in 10 jobs added to the workforce. At the same time, the IWPR reported, “[Women] continue to lag further behind men in getting back to pre-COVID-19 employment levels.”
However, there are some signs that the situation is improving. According to economist M. Ray Perryman, president and CEO of The Perryman Group, “there has been further improvement and a shrinking gap between the genders for June. The unemployment rate for women was at 11.2%, and at 10.2% for men.”
Why is the unemployment crisis hurting more women than men?
Even with the improvement, there is little doubt that job losses within the current economic downturn have been prevalent among women working in leisure, hospitality, education, retail and health care. In fact, women comprise more than 50% of the workforce in these industries, said Julian Burns King, an employment law attorney and partner with King & Siegel LLP. As a result, she added, “Layoffs in these industries will usually have a disproportionate impact on women.”
Additionally, there is the question of whether the work needs to be performed on-site versus from home.
“The deciding factors for who is laid off or furloughed during this pandemic have been whether the type of work is deemed essential by local government officials, and whether the work can be performed remotely,” according to Jay Denton, Senior Vice President of Business Intelligence and Chief Innovation Officer at ThinkWhy.
Cosmetology and hairstyling, for example, employ a large share of women providing services that can’t be done remotely. As such, “a large number of female workers are employed in many of the industries that have been most negatively impacted by the downturn,” said Denton.
Research also noted that Black women are experiencing the largest setback. June 2020 unemployment figures indicated that Black women experienced a 14% unemployment rate, compared to a 10.3% unemployment rate among white women. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Black women and Black families are also at higher risk for COVID-19, because they comprise a larger percentage of front-line workers.
A focus on child care
Families represent another reason why the current recession is impacting women more than men. Specifically, because of child care.
Even during booming economic times, and even when women made up a large percentage of the workforce, they still had greater responsibilities for child care and at-home duties. Plenty of studies have indicated the disparity between men and women when it comes to fulfilling household duties. But then came COVID-19, quarantines and shutdowns, making the disparity of at-home labor that much more apparent. By and large, women were the ones who were called upon to pick up the at-home tasks. “School and day care closures are forcing mothers to take leave, resign or be fired based on their inability to work shifts that conflict with child care duties,” King remarked.
Women are also finding themselves in the position of homeschooling their children or ensuring that their children keep up with their educational studies. This is also likely to erode any potential of returning to work, especially since many schools will remain closed in the fall and instead rely on more remote learning methods.
When will jobs for women return?
The question is whether jobs for women will return as the economy continues to improve. King believes that one right move would involve legislation at the federal level that prevents discrimination based on parental status. Another good move might involve employers reasonably accommodating modified work schedules, which are in place due to school or day care closures. Other ideas surfacing include the need for affordable child care and better pay for women. Remote working can also help level the playing field, especially for women in management or professional positions.
Perryman believes that if the economy can safely re-open, “we should see women regaining lost jobs to a large extent, and the gap between unemployment rates for men and women shrinking further.” Still, Perryman indicated that some businesses will never re-open, and “the path to recovery will likely take a couple of years.”
Roadblocks to gender equality
Much of what is being written about current economic disparity and unemployment between men and women rests on the idea that women tend to work in occupations that have been more vulnerable to COVID-19 shutdowns. At-home duties have grown exponentially, putting more burden on women and their career choices. As such, unless companies change policies, and federal and state representatives work to help close the gender disparity gap, the COVID-19 recession could, unfortunately, scrap many of the gains made by women in the workforce.