Are Working Women Paying the Price of the Pandemic?

Categories: Blog

This article was contributed by YWCA Princeton volunteer Meg Hobson

In early 2020 women accomplished a workforce milestone, holding more than half of American jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A few months later the pandemic delivered a harsh blow to occupations and industries dominated by women and consequently, this landmark achievement.

Meanwhile, childcare centers closed, schools moved to remote learning, and homes turned into offices, nurseries, and classrooms. The blurring of the line between work and family responsibility under one roof has created pressure on parents to juggle additional care responsibilities. However, in many households this burden has not been equally felt, but instead disproportionately placed on the shoulders of women.

Unlike previous modern economic downturns, the expected drop in labor force participation combined with the new need for caregiving at home has left mothers and single parents most vulnerable. The gender imbalances across jobs and lost income in this economic landscape have coined the term “She-cession.”

Since February last year, close to 2.4 million women have exited the workforce compared to 1.8 million men. This is partially due to the pandemics’ first wave of steep job cuts impacting female dominated sectors such as leisure, hospitality, education and health services. The effects rippled into the lives of working women and mothers, as they had work hours reduced or stepped down from their careers.

Early on in the pandemic childcare centers buckled under public health restrictions while demand grew, children learning from home required supervision and with lower household incomes, childcare became unfeasible for many families. Forced to juggle the role of caregiver and provider, parents had to decide whose career would be sacrificed to the pandemic. More than ever, childcare became an essential service, yet for many families it remains an inaccessible resource. Affordable childcare with flexible before and after hours empowers working parents, and enables children to meet their developmental needs and goals. Without the financial means to secure reliable childcare, working mothers are often paying the price.

Representing a majority in more flexible and lower income jobs, women are facing more employment penalties. According to the Government Census, unemployed women aged 25-44 were three times more likely than men to have stopped working due to childcare demands.

But it doesn’t stop there. At minimum, unemployment or reduced working hours lead to loss of income, but this time away from work also means women may miss out on professional development opportunities and growth within their industries. As a result, the gender pay gap whereby women earn 81.6 cents compared to a dollar of male income is predicted by economists to widen.

While not all mothers have stepped down from their careers and some have even benefited from the flexibility of working from home, many others, especially single parents, have been less fortunate. And, this “She-cession” may have far reaching impacts over the longer term, disproportionately reducing earning potential and work opportunities for women, mothers and those in low socio economic brackets.

Only time will truly tell. But, the pandemic has also revealed areas for improvement, highlighting vital truths that have been holding back women in particular from fully integrating into the labor force. Now there is an opportunity to usher in a new era of inclusive policy, flexible work arrangements and support for families through greater access to childcare. This post pandemic future could lead to the rebuilding of a stronger economy with the potential to eliminate social and financial inequalities.