ISSUE 15: The Pandemic's Heavy Toll on Working Women
In 2019, close to half of the United States workforce was comprised of women and over 57% of all women participated in the country’s labor force. Though women’s labor force participation has been slowly declining since 1999 when it peaked at 60%, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to precipitate this trend. Indeed, women workers have been hit especially hard and disproportionately so. As highlighted in the recent 2020 report, Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19, by university of Arkansas professor Gema Zamarro and economists Francisco Perez-Arce and Maria Jose Prados, women employment has fallen this year by 13% compared to 10% for men. And while the 2008 crisis mostly hit male-dominated sectors—leading some to coin the latter a “Mancession” — Covid-19 has been particularly brutal to female-dominated sectors, such as the service industry. Hence, it is no surprise that some women are calling the current economic crisis a “Shecession.” Moreover, among women who have remained employed, many have faced serious challenges that have negatively impacted their productivity levels and overall quality of life as well as jeopardized their physical health and mental wellbeing.
Since the pandemic, women have emerged as essential workers. Indeed, 1 in 3 women are considered essential workers—employed in a range of sectors including healthcare and sanitation and holding down jobs in supermarkets and post offices. As essential workers, some argue that these women have been fortunate: retaining their jobs, a monthly salary and even benefits. However, the reality is far less rosier as these jobs are often underpaid and undervalued and have placed these women at greater risk for Covid-19 exposure. A case in point are many of the health and social care sector jobs held by women. The latter represent around 77% of the 19 million health care workers in the United States. During this ongoing health crisis, women working in low paying jobs as home health aides and nursing assistants in hospital and nursing care facilities often risk their health and that of their family in order to ensure some level of economic security. The health risks have been real as confirmed by the latest Center for Disease Control statistics: 79% of healthcare workers with Covid-19 were female.
Domestic workers who are predominantly women are in a particularly precarious position and are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 91,5% of domestic workers are women and their jobs, which are often temporary employment, vary from house cleaners and nannies to child care and home care. Often described as invisible labour and hence difficult to protect, domestic workers have experienced job losses or temporary job suspensions at unprecedented numbers due to heightened fear of the virus by families, a growing number of parents working remotely, and the difficulty of commuting to their jobs as a result of limited transportation. Moreover, as reported by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), in addition to experiencing a sharp decline in work, 66% of American domestic workers were unsure if households would rehire them once the pandemic was over. Domestic workers have proven particularly vulnerable to the deleterious effects of this health crisis as they commonly do not benefit from labor law protections. For instance, President Trump’s $2,3 trillion rescue package, signed at the end of March, specifically ruled out domestic workers from receiving aid, leaving this group of employed women—often the sole bread winners of their homes—jobless without any government aid to fall back on.
Finally, working mothers as a whole and across industries have struggled as the pandemic has forced many to work remotely from home while caring for their confined children throughout the day. Unable to pay for expensive childcare or rely on help from grandparents, many women have had little choice but to carry out a taxing juggling act: ensuring the varied needs of their younger children—from help with distance learning to meal preparation and entertainment — while trying to meet work responsibilities and deadlines. In light of these additional stressors brought about by the pandemic, it is no wonder that many women have expressed a drop in their productivity levels and quality of life including their mental health. The strain on working women has raised for some feelings of failure and guilt. As one woman, juggling work as a VP and mother of two, shared: “I’m failing in every single way, because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible.” Though men were often telecommuting during quarantine as well, working mothers carried a heavier load of child care than fathers as the graph to the right shows. Some women have described ensuring childcare and housework as well as their jobs as the equivalent of doing a “double shift.”
According to a recent McKinsey & Company and Lean In report, Women in the Workplace, “one in three mothers may be forced to scale back or opt out” of their jobs because of Covid-19. Indeed, compared to women without children and men, working mothers have reduced to a greater degree their working hours. Indeed, as highlighted in Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19, among college-educated workers, mothers have reduced their working hours by 64% while women (without children) have reduced them by 52% and men by 36%. For other working mothers, the situation has proven so untenable, that they’ve contemplated stepping away from their jobs or have already left the labor force.
The negative impacts of the pandemic have disproportionately touched working women on a global scale too, as underscored in a 2020 McKinsey Global Institute report, Covid-19 and Gender Equality: Countering the Regressive Effects. Though women comprise only 39% of global employment, they’ve suffered 54% of overall job losses. Much is at stake if these trends continue as this report warns: a projected Global GDP growth $1 trillion lower in 2030. Unfortunately with no clear end in sight, the pandemic is likely to remain a powerful threat to the retention of women to the American and global workforces that only direct and immediate action could possibly mitigate.