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Women hit harder by COVID recession

The economic crash triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many existing inequalities in the United States, including social, racial, financial and gender inequity. But this recession is particularly devastating for women, with one news organization calling it “America’s first female recession.”

Of the eight economic downturns over the past five decades, this is the first time women have lost more jobs than men (11.5 million vs. 9.0 million, between February and May 2020). In October 2020, 4.5 million fewer women were employed than in October 2019. The Pew Research Center has also found striking racial disparities, with Latinas experiencing the most drastic employment decline (21%), followed by Asian women (19%), Black women (17%), and white women (13%).

Women workers are disproportionately concentrated in jobs most affected by the epidemic and business closures, such as service industries, retail businesses, health care, child care and state and local government jobs. But even in less traditional sectors such as transportation and warehousing, where 25% of the workforce is female, women account for 39% of the job losses, as they are less likely to be supervisors or managers.

“[September was] a disaster for working women. 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force; 216,000 men did,” said Mike Madowitz of the Center for American Progress.

Even women who have been able to work remotely and hold on to their jobs are facing huge obstacles. The closure of child care centers, combined with closed or remote-learning schools, has dramatically increased demands on parents. In many American households, these burdens are not shared equally: a June 2020 study found that in dual-earner households “mothers with young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers.”

For many women, juggling these demands has meant shifting a full-time job to part-time, refusing challenging work assignments that might have advanced their careers, or even declining new job offers. Such decisions can have long-term effects, curtailing career prospects or reducing future earnings and financial security over a lifetime.

And for single mothers who must shoulder all the responsibility for their children, the situation is much worse and will prevent many from returning to work at all.

For those classified as “essential workers,” who are often minority women, with the most erratic schedules, the fewest benefits and the lowest earnings, the child care dilemma is acute, becoming a weekly or monthly emergency.

Moreover, the child care industry itself is in crisis: centers around the country have closed, putting an estimated 325,000 people out of work, predominantly women, nearly half people of color.

Claudia Golden, Harvard economics professor, notes that this is “the first recession where the economy [is] so intertwined with the network of child care.” Stabilizing, strengthening and funding a comprehensive child care system in the United States is becoming more critical than ever. Without legislative efforts to address these issues, experts advise that the U.S. risks setting back years of struggle toward women’s economic equality.

Mary Renaud is a member of the Ashland branch of AAUW (https://ashland-or.aauw.net).

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