Pan­demic re­ces­sion ex­poses in­equities for women

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - C. Ni­cole Ma­son Opin­ion contributo­r C. Ni­cole Ma­son, Ph.D., is pres­i­dent and CEO of the In­sti­tute for Women’s Pol­icy Re­search.

Things have changed. While I at­tended a small fam­ily wed­ding in Las Ve­gas, a rel­a­tive con­fided to me that she had been laid off. She had worked for a com­pany, a ma­jor re­sort and casino, for 20 years in one of their many restau­rants.

Now, seem­ingly with­out no­tice, she was un­em­ployed and rais­ing a son. She also is the pri­mary wage earner in her fam­ily. In her voice, I could sense a mix­ture of dis­be­lief, fear and un­cer­tainty about their fu­ture and when she might re­turn to work.

This is the new re­al­ity for many work­ing women across Amer­ica.

Women have been dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt by job losses dur­ing the pan­demic. From February to May, 11.5 mil­lion women lost their jobs com­pared with 9 mil­lion men, trig­ger­ing a “she­ces­sion” – an eco­nomic down­turn where job and in­come losses are af­fect­ing women more than men.

The ma­jor­ity of job losses have been con­cen­trated in sec­tors dom­i­nated by women: leisure and hos­pi­tal­ity, ed­u­ca­tion, health care and ser­vice. Th­ese jobs tend to be lower pay­ing and have less flex­i­bil­ity or ben­e­fits, ex­ac­er­bat­ing many in­equal­i­ties in the work­force.

Worse, this cri­sis places a heavy bur­den on women’s shoul­ders in car­ing for fam­i­lies. With schools and day cares closed, women are re­spon­si­ble for most of the care­tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in fam­i­lies. Women are in an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion: hav­ing to choose be­tween earn­ing a liv­ing and tak­ing care of their chil­dren.

The sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly acute for Black and Latina women, close to a third of whom are em­ployed in the ser­vice sec­tor. Many of th­ese women do not have the op­tion to work re­motely or to refuse work for health rea­sons. To get paid, they must show up.

Pan­demic ex­poses in­equities

The pan­demic and our gov­ern­ment’s failed re­sponse to it has brought many things into fo­cus. Chief among them is the fact that many of our sys­tems – in­clud­ing eco­nomic and health care – have never worked for women and fam­i­lies. In fact, over the years, th­ese bro­ken sys­tems have only deep­ened health, eco­nomic, so­cial in­equal­i­ties and dis­par­i­ties for women and peo­ple of color.

One re­sult of th­ese failed sys­tems is that women have al­ways been more likely to be im­pov­er­ished com­pared with men. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau, of the 38.1 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in poverty in 2018, 56% – or 21.4 mil­lion – were women.

Women also earn less, have smaller sav­ings and are more likely to leave the work­force or re­duce work hours to take care of their chil­dren or sick fam­ily mem­bers com­pared with men. Th­ese in­equities are par­tic­u­larly per­ni­cious for women of color.

An­other fac­tor shap­ing women’s eco­nomic well-be­ing is their lack of ac­cess to high-qual­ity, af­ford­able health care. Com­pared with other high-in­come coun­tries, women in the United States spend $2,000 or more on out-of-pocket med­i­cal ex­penses for them­selves or fam­ily mem­bers, are more likely to skip or de­lay needed med­i­cal care be­cause of costs, and are less likely to rate their qual­ity of care as ex­cel­lent or very good.

A di­rect cor­re­la­tion ex­ists be­tween th­ese find­ings and high ma­ter­nal death rates among Black women and even the dis­pro­por­tion­ately high rates of COVID-19-re­lated deaths among racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

Women's eco­nomic gains erased

At the first of the year, we cel­e­brated women’s eco­nomic gains, when they made up a lit­tle more than 50% of the work­force. The pan­demic has all but wiped out those gains and made it more dif­fi­cult for women to reen­ter the work­force and sus­tain em­ploy­ment. Many of the jobs lost will not come back. Many women will have to learn new skills or en­ter a new pro­fes­sion, where start­ing wages might be lower.

To dig out of the eco­nomic cri­sis and to en­sure an even re­cov­ery, we will have to go big – in­sti­tut­ing bold public poli­cies at the state and fed­eral lev­els that ac­cel­er­ate clos­ing the pay gap, pro­vide eco­nomic sup­ports to women who are un­able to reen­ter the work­force, and ad­vance leg­is­la­tion that ex­pands paid and fam­ily med­i­cal leave.

Child care also will be key. With­out child care, women will not be able to reen­ter the work­force to re­coup job losses. If we don’t fix the fail­ing child care sys­tem, women will con­tinue to lose ground in terms of ca­reer ad­vance­ment, mo­bil­ity and earn­ings. We should look to child care mod­els in coun­tries like Swe­den and treat child care as a public good. It should be sub­si­dized and widely avail­able to fam­i­lies re­gard­less of in­come or the age of the child. Do­ing so will al­low women to not only reen­ter the work­force but also to be com­pet­i­tive and sus­tain em­ploy­ment.

In short, we need a new deal, one that cen­ters on work­ing women and their fam­i­lies. The next ad­min­is­tra­tion should pur­sue poli­cies that build eq­ui­table in­sti­tu­tions and sys­tems, that get peo­ple back to work and that en­sure eco­nomic pros­per­ity for all. This is our op­por­tu­nity to make things right; let’s not squan­der it.

If we don’t fix the fail­ing child care sys­tem, women will con­tinue to lose ground in terms of ca­reer ad­vance­ment, mo­bil­ity and earn­ings.


Women have been dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt by job losses dur­ing the pan­demic.

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