This is the first women's recession in the U.S.: Here's what's happening, what it means, and what comes next

For the first time, women are seeing significantly greater job losses than men during a recession.

Kiersten Schmidt/Grow

Historically, recessions have mainly affected men, who were more likely to be employed overall and in industries hit hard by downturns, such as construction and manufacturing.

But the coronavirus pandemic recession is different. It is the first recession to disproportionately affect women.

In December, a few months before the coronavirus began to spread widely throughout the United States, women hit a milestone — they made up more than half of the labor force for only the second time in history. The first time women overtook men as a share of the labor force was in 2009 as a consequence of the Great Recession.

Women overtook men in the workforce late last year mainly because gains in the female-dominated services sector far outpaced those in male-dominated industries. But those service-sector jobs were hardest hit when shutdowns began in March, and that sent women's employment into a tailspin.

Between February and April, women's unemployment rose 12.8 percentage points, while men's rose 9.9 points. The 2.9-point gap was the largest in history for either gender and represented the first time women's unemployment outpaced men's during a recession since 1970.

More than 13 million jobs held by women disappeared from February to April, erasing two decades of women's job gains. While some jobs have returned, there are still 6 million fewer women working now than there were in February.

April also marked the first time women's unemployment reached double digits since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it in 1948. Women's unemployment hit 16.2%, while men's reached 13.5%.

Women's unemployment rate
Note: Seasonally adjusted data
kiersten schmidt/grow Bureau of Labor Statistics

Women's unemployment is down significantly from its peak, but just looking at this metric misses an important part of the story. The unemployment rate doesn't reflect those who have left the workforce entirely. 

"Obviously industries like retail and hospitality have been hit really hard by the recession," says Katherine Goldstein, creator and host of The Double Shift podcast, which focuses on issues affecting working mothers. "But that doesn't really account for everything that's going on in terms of women being forced out of the workforce."

Why women are leaving the workforce

In September, 216,000 men dropped out of the workforce. The number of women who did so: 865,000. That's four times as many.

When stores and restaurants shut down in March, sending mostly women to the unemployment line, so did schools and day cares. That left many working parents without anyone to watch their kids.

Number of people in the workforce, change from the previous month
kiersten schmidt/grow Bureau of Labor Statistics

Even before the pandemic, household labor and child care largely fell to mothers. According to a recent study, among married couples who both work full time, women provided close to 60% of child care overall and 70% of child care during working hours. When schools and day cares shut down, it was largely mothers who picked up the slack.

In a FlexJobs survey of more than 2,500 working parents with children under 18 living at home during the pandemic, 63% of mothers reported they primarily handled child-care duties, while 42% of fathers reported the same. Similarly, 80% of working mothers reported taking the lead in remote learning, while just 31% of fathers said the same.

"The pandemic has specifically hit working mothers really hard," says Amber Thornton, a psychologist who runs Balanced Working Mama, a consulting practice that helps mothers manage their work, motherhood, and wellness. "It's almost like all of the things they've been trying to balance are right in front of their face and now it's impossible."

Distribution of household labor for heterosexual parents in dual-career couples
Note: Based on a survey of more than 40,000 U.S. employees conducted from May to August 2020.
kiersten schmidt/grow 2020 Women in the Workplace Report

Many women who have remained in the workforce have cut back or have considered cutting back their hours in order to take care of responsibilities at home. Between March and April, mothers scaled back their work by about two hours each week, while fathers' hours mostly remained stable, according to a recent study on the effect of the pandemic on the gender gap in work hours.

Percent of employees who have considered changing their work situation during the Covid-19 crisis
Note: Based on a survey of more than 40,000 U.S. employees conducted from May to August 2020.
kiersten schmidt/grow 2020 Women in the Workplace Report

"That number, two hours a week, sounds small when you say that out loud, right?" Caitlyn Collins, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author of the study, told The Lily. But "if you think about how this adds up over many weeks, months, and even years, it has dramatic consequences for women's labor force participation, for their promotions, for their earnings."

"All these little numbers add up in the minds of our co-workers and our supervisors in ways that matter. And it matters that fathers are continuing basically business as usual," she said.

Collins told WashU's The Source it's possible in times of crisis families revert to more traditional gender roles in the household division of labor. Or it could be that financial stress and the need to protect primary earners — most often fathers — caused mothers to assume more of the unpaid domestic work.

The wage gap is certainly a consideration. As of 2018, women still earned just 85% of what men did. When someone needs to stay home to care for the children, it can make economic sense for the person who makes less money to do so.

"I think it's very important to say [women are] being forced out of the workforce as opposed to dropping out," says The Double Shift's Goldstein. Dropping out "implies a personal choice rather than a systemic failure."

The decline in women's employment and the increase in the number of women leaving the workforce entirely could lead to an even worse situation for women. In a recent study, economists predicted this recession will likely widen the wage gap by 5 percentage points. A typical recession, on the other hand, narrows the wage gap by 2 percentage points, the researchers found.

A temporary crisis could lead to lasting change

The data paints a bleak picture, but there is reason for optimism. In July, presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a $775 billion plan to ease the burden of child care for working parents. Among the plan's provisions are 12 weeks of paid family leave and access to free universal prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

This recession could also contribute to a change in culture. Temporary crises can accelerate social change, as the U.S. saw with an increase in women's workforce participation after World War II. This kind of change arises not just out of necessity, but from a shift in social norms. There is hope among economists that increased pressure on families, and mothers in particular, could lead to lasting structural changes.

"I think there's opportunity for gender balance," says Goldstein. "I think there's opportunity for society to see a responsibility for child care that we have not accepted before as important for a stable economy and a functioning society."

The same study that predicted an increase in the wage gap also found reason to be optimistic. History shows that a temporary shift in the division of labor could lead to more permanent shifts in gender norms. For example, boys who grow up with working mothers are more likely to marry women who continue to work when married.

The increased roles men who are telecommuting have taken on in the home could have a lasting effect. The researchers found that men who can work from home do about 50% more child care than men who cannot. An uptick in the number of workers who telecommute could lead to men taking on a larger share of child care and household responsibilities. In turn, that can influence their children's behavior when they're grown.

"I think that in society, we always see the mother as the default parent," says Thornton, the psychologist who runs Balanced Working Mama. But she also notices "in millennial culture, we tend to see fathers and husbands be a little more engaged in some of the caretaking and household" tasks than older generations.

The researchers also found that after about 20 years, the gender wage gap should return to its previous level. While this is a long time, there is a silver lining.

"A pandemic recession has the potential to be a watershed moment in terms of the division of labor in the family and in terms of a family-friendly organization of the workplace," they wrote. "Through these channels, the pandemic can contribute to reducing gender inequality over the long run."

Nate Rattner contributed data analysis to this story.

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