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The Unequal Effects of Covid-19 in the Workplace

The Covid-19 pandemic sent unemployment rates soaring around the world in early 2020, with rates in the United States hitting highs since data started to be collected in 1948. And while the entire world suffered, not everyone suffered proportionately in the workplace. For one, young people and those in unstable jobs have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, often facing uncertain job prospects in the future and contributing disproportionately to the high unemployment rate. But among people in similar roles, controlling for differences caused by differing roles and age, another group of people have disproportionately taken the brunt of the job losses and changes to the opportunities available to them: women. Women account for most of job losses during this major recession, unlike the recession of 2008, where men counted for about 80 percent of job losses. This difference is unfair and something must be done during the recovery to help achieve a more equitable world post-pandemic. One contributing factor to the issues facing women today is the lack of a robust childcare system in the United States, and the government should be doing considerably more to help working mothers during the pandemic and beyond.

Why is this happening? Many factors contribute to the disproportionate adjustment costs borne by women; among them is the role that women are often forced to play in parenting. Social norms and institutions continue to hold women to the unreasonable expectation that they should both seek full-time employment while also somehow being full-time mothers. To be a working mother is undeniably difficult, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been especially hard on the many mothers who are forced to choose between child care and continuing to work. With the closures of many child care options due to the pandemic, women are having more trouble working because they are forced to stay home and take care of their children. No surprise, women have dropped from the labor force at greater rates than men in the past 12 months. For example, take the month of September, where four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force. Take the example of Aimee, a tech CEO who was forced to stop working because of childcare needs at home. Her husband was at home and could have well taken care of their child, but she felt forced to choose between working full time or taking a step back to focus on her children. Her story is one of many. Lots of other women, unfortunately, are forced into the same difficult decision. Women are also being laid off at higher rates during this recession due to the higher concentration of women in service industries (among others) that are more impacted by the pandemic than those with greater male concentration. 

Even after controlling for industry, the data still paints a similar picture. Among scientists, women reported taking far greater time away from conducting research relative to their male counterparts. Again, female scientists with young dependents were the most affected group, and overall the amount of time weekly on the job has seen a sharp decline, further demonstrating how this pandemic’s negative impact is not affecting everyone equally. 

Prior to the beginning of 2020, women outnumbered men in the workforce in the United States for only the second time in history (the other was during the Great Recession, during which men lost far more jobs than women). After the pandemic, however, this proportion dropped once more to only 49.7 percent of the workforce. As of October 2020, the problem was only getting worse. At the time of the latest available data, women were leaving the workforce four times faster than their male counterparts even as the economy was making a recovery. Now, women are forced to continue doing more household duties than men, as they have in the past; this is one dynamic the pandemic is not changing. While many men are now doing more than they have in the past, the distribution of work within homes is still not even – studies show that men do an average of two fewer hours of housework than women every single day. The expectation our society places on women to somehow work full time and take care of their children without childcare services has taken a painful toll. Women are being forced out of the workplace far more than men during the pandemic. 

There is a financial impact of this, and the world is incentivized to ensure that a more equitable system is promoted in the recovery from this recession. A McKinsey study found that women are prone to be disproportionately affected in the long run from economic downturns (indicating a slower recovery for the economy as a whole) because of existing gender inequities. It also concluded that the world could expect a much higher global GDP by the end of the decade if women’s unemployment rate were to track that of men, meaning that without that inequality, the entire world would be richer. How can the world address this moving forward?

By choosing one area of the problem to target, the pandemic recovery can happen in a more equitable way. The US government in particular, but also other governments around the world, should prioritize government-backed childcare plans in order to enable young professional mothers to embrace their careers and eliminate that choice between childcare and work. While the government may not be able to provide full-service childcare, it should subsidize childcare and help make the resource more available to underprivileged families. Legislative pushes have happened for expanded childcare in the recent past, but the world should embrace a more comprehensive reform in the post-pandemic world so this kind of inequality can be avoided in the future. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell supports this idea, and even recently promoted it as a means of the government to help take action and spur the economic recovery. Ideally, both private corporations and the government take action, in line with some of the proposals suggested by one senior partner at McKinsey. The federal government should also promote job training programs for women that help them transition to industries that they are looking to hire. Even if the economy recovers, the world will likely never look the same as it did prior to the pandemic. The necessity to have employees work from home and the increasing ability of employers to support this leads to a flexibility that should not disappear after the pandemic has passed. This development should be used to help allow women to continue working with a greater flexibility and should help the world recover in a more equitable, and ultimately better, way. 

Image: Flickr (Phil Whitehouse)