A ‘Shecession’: Women Bear the Brunt of Pandemic’s Economic Impacts

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on the United States workforce. As businesses were forced to close their doors last year because of lockdowns, layoffs and firings rippled across all sectors.

In March 2020, millions of Americans filed for unemployment. By April, the unemployment rate rose to 14.7 percent, the highest it has been since the Great Depression. A year later, while some businesses have reopened and the unemployment rate has dropped, millions of Americans are still out of work or unable to return to the workforce. 

However, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been equally felt. As the workforce experienced a rocky 2020, women were faced with higher rates of unemployment and loss of income. In April, the unemployment rate for women was at 15.5 percent. This was the first time since 1948 that the unemployment rate for women has reached double digits, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic women were even higher at 16.4 percent and 20.2 percent respectively. 

This disturbing trend continued through the latter half of the year with 865,000 women leaving the U.S. workforce in September. In December, 140,000 net jobs were lost. Women lost 156,000 jobs during the month, while men gained 16,000 jobs. 

Since February 2020, women have lost a total of 5.4 million jobs. Almost 2.1 million women have dropped out of the labor force entirely. 

Large job and income losses among women are in part because they are overrepresented in sectors hit the hardest by pandemic lockdowns including retail, hospitality, education and food services. Paid domestic workers, 80 percent of whom are women, have also been severely impacted by economic recessions across the globe. 72 percent of domestic workers have lost their jobs, a fact that has been particularly painful for women of color who are overrepresented in personal care jobs. 

These sectors also tend to be already underpaid, undervalued and lacking in benefits, meaning women employed in them often do not have a good net to fall back on if fired or laid off for a long time.

However, it is not just job loss that has made women bear the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout. 

With the closure of schools and childcare centers across the country came an increased need for caregiving. This unpaid job typically falls on the shoulders of women because they are paid less across all sectors thanks to the gender pay gap. Therefore, when a heteronormative couple must decide who to stay home to handle household and care work, the woman is often the partner forced to step up. Deeply ingrained gender norms are also often used to justify women staying home.

Before the pandemic, women already performed 5.7 hours per day of unpaid household and care work, while men performed 3.6 hours. This means that on average, women in the U.S. spent 37 percent more time on these unpaid duties than men. The pandemic has only served to exacerbate this inequality.

This increased demand for care has not only impacted the current financial security of women, especially single mothers, but also their potential future earnings. According to a 2018 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, an employment gap of just a year leads to a 39 percent decrease in annual earnings, a number that increases over time. 

Many women are also on the frontlines of the pandemic as underpaid medical professions. Recent data from Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.S. showed that confirmed COVID-19 cases among female healthcare workers were two to three times higher than those observed among male healthcare workers. 

These women are putting their lives on the line to protect our communities and countries, and yet they are paid less for doing so. Globally, women make up 70 percent of healthcare workers and first responders, and yet the pay gap between men and women in the field is at 28 percent. 

However, economic insecurity does not just impact the financial sphere of a woman’s life. Reduced income can reduce women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Economic insecurity can also increase the risk of gender-based violence, which has already been on the rise throughout the pandemic. Without secure economic resources, it may be difficult for women to escape these abusive situations and find safety and support. 

At the root of this problem, though, is not the pandemic or lockdowns, but pre-existing economic, political and social inequalities that have been laid glaringly bare over the past year. Women and their contributions to our economy and livelihoods are too often undervalued, leading to disparities in pay, paid leave and healthcare plans. What the pandemic has shown us is that we need to provide more support and protection for women in the workplace, not just in the next economic recovery package, but also in future policy decisions. 

The United Nations has suggested the following five steps that governments and business can take to mitigate the negative economic impacts COVID-19 has had on women: 

  1. Direct income support to women 

  2. Support for women-owned and - led businesses 

  3. Support for women workers 

  4. Support for information workers 

  5. Reconciliation of paid and unpaid work

Taking such steps can start the U.S. on a path towards better economic and gender equality that extends beyond the pandemic.