In the early months of 2020, coronavirus was just beginning to dominate our collective thoughts and conversations. Amid that chaos and uncertainty, an interesting stat was all but lost in the noise: as of January 2020, women in the U.S. workforce outnumbered men. This was true until late February 2020, when this numerical advantage came to an abrupt end. Now that the massive economic impacts of COVID are evident, the picture looks very different. In September alone, a jaw dropping 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce — four times more than men.
The pandemic served to underscore the complex and enduring web of gender inequality that is driving this mass exodus. When it comes to the home, the specter of the traditional gender roles that have forged such systemic inequalities is largely still present, with women frequently shouldering the bulk of unpaid household labor and childcare responsibilities.
Childcare is a critical component to women’s ability to maintain their place in the workforce. The child care crisis created by the pandemic is one of the major factors wreaking havoc on women’s employment. It has come to a head as the current school year finds many children staying home instead of returning to in-person school. In addition to basic care responsibilities, support is needed to facilitate children’s at-home learning. The lack of affordable and accessible childcare resources to fill those gaps is forcing many women to make difficult choices.
So why is this decision falling on women, even in households that actively eschew stereotypical gender roles? The gender pay gap — which has women making 82 cents for every dollar a man earns – plays a substantial part here. When families must weigh options to accommodate challenging circumstances, the lower wage earner is often the one who ultimately takes a step back. This leads to many women downshifting their careers or departing the workforce entirely.
But what about when stepping back is not a decision at all? A large portion of job losses during the pandemic has come in sectors with high female employment like hospitality, education, entertainment and healthcare. The Labor Department showed women’s unemployment in April at 16.2 percent, nearly three points higher than men’s. The disparity is even deeper for women of color, with Black and Hispanic women even more likely to be employed in one of these female-dominated sectors.
Though the most stringent COVID closures and restrictions have been lifted, labor experts are concerned that a large number of workers will continue to suffer significant cuts to hours, wages and tips. These cutbacks will disproportionately impact women, and may prove devastating for low-income households.
Even down the road, when the pandemic is contained and economic recovery is underway, we can anticipate these losses will have long-term consequences to women’s financial stability. According to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a one year gap in employment leads to a 39% decrease in annual earnings – and decreases only grow over time.
Such a lack of financial stability holds peril not only for individual households, but for society overall. It’s likely the pandemic’s female career exodus has turned back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce at lows not seen since 1988.
A thriving U.S. economy depends on a diverse workforce, with women playing an inextricable role. That vision is at great risk when households forfeit earnings and productive capacity as women are forced to the sidelines. In addition to economic consequences, the social impact of this direct hit to gender equality is also profound. Without women being able to achieve upward mobility and assume positions of leadership in society, the glass ceiling remains largely intact.