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U.S. Women, Work, and the COVID Pandemic: Myths and Realities

Did the COVID-19 pandemic really spur a “SHE-session” in the United States? Did a large number of working mothers leave the labor force to provide child care? Will pandemic-driven upheavals in the labor market have long-term consequences for women’s financial well-being? We examined labor force data and checked in with demographers and economists who follow gender and labor force trends to answer some common questions and bust common myths.

The pandemic created a “SHE-cession.” MOSTLY TRUE.

Between March 2020 and April 2020, one million more women than men lost their jobs, leading many to refer to the recession as a she-cession.1 (See Figure 1.) In later months of the pandemic, the trend is less clear. The employment recovery for women trailed men in some months, while in other months women saw faster job growth than men.

However, the number of women in the labor force—which includes people who are employed and those looking for work— fell sharply during the pandemic. Between January 2020 and October 2021, the number of women in the labor force dropped by 1.7 million, compared with a 1.3-million decline among men.

Figure 1. Women Lost More Jobs Than Men Early in the Pandemic, But Pattern Is Less Clear in Later Months


Source: PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

 

What drove the decline in women’s labor force participation?

Some of the employment losses for women were due to the types of jobs that were scaled back during stay-at-home orders, especially positions in accommodation (hotels), food services, and personal services, which are predominantly held by women. And some of women’s employment losses were due to caregiving responsibilities.

Faced with pandemic-related disruptions in child care (as schools and child-care centers closed, and other sources of care from grandparents and sitters were scaled back or unavailable), many families faced a child-care gap. Among different-sex couples, many fathers increased their caregiving early in the pandemic, but by fall 2020 a broad return to imbalanced gender roles occurred—with women providing a disproportionate share of the additional child care.2 More research is needed to understand the pandemic’s effects on caregiving among same-sex couples with children.

Reasons for the gender imbalance in child care are complex, and Jessica Calarco, Emily Meanwell, and Elizabeth Anderson of Indiana University Bloomington interviewed people from dual-earner, different-sex couples with children to better understand those dynamics.3 Parents frequently told the researchers that they found traditional gender roles familiar—fathers tended to be primary breadwinners and mothers were more likely to be available at home due to telework.

But many of the “decisions” about who would provide child care were by default rather than through discussion or negotiation within the household. “Mothers (and fathers) in dual-earner different-sex couples perceive traditional parenting arrangements as justified and desirable even when those arrangements are damaging mothers’ careers, relationships, and well-being,” Calarco, Meanwell, and Anderson write. And those perceptions may help explain why many women remain out of the labor force.

Most working mothers quit to provide child care. FALSE.

While millions of women lost jobs or left work to take care of their children, many persisted in their paid job while taking on additional (unpaid) responsibilities at home and coped with new stressors from the pandemic in other ways. Data from California suggest that more than one in 10 caregivers reduced working hours to provide child care during the pandemic—and slightly more women than men reported reducing their paid work hours.

But those who left the workforce or reduced work hours reflect only a fraction of working parents. Most mothers who were working before the pandemic continued to work as the health crisis unfolded. When Claudia Goldin of Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research compared women’s labor force participation rates for 2020 and 2021 to their pre-pandemic levels, she found that about one in 60 college graduate women left the labor force, while slightly more than one in 30 non-college graduate women did.4

“A far greater fraction of mothers were stressed, were frustrated, were burnt out because they didn’t drop out of the labor force—they persisted—far greater than those who were forced to drop out by the overload,” she argued during a June 2021 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine webinar.5

In Goldin’s view, “the real story should be that women remained in the labor force and persevered, not that they left in droves or were pushed out.”

These imbalanced caregiving arrangements have taken a toll not just on women’s careers, but also on their mental health.6 In a recent analysis, Gema Zamarro and María J. Prados of the University of Southern California found “higher levels of psychological distress reported by mothers of elementary school-age and younger children.”

Echoing those findings, when PRB analyzed data on Family Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic, we found that among parents and caregivers in California who had at least one child under age 18 in the household, a considerably larger share of women (34%) reported feeling stressed “most of the time” or “always” compared with men (24%).

The setbacks working women face during the pandemic are only short term. FALSE.

Olivia Mitchell, a University of Pennsylvania economist, pointed out in a recent interview with PRB a handful of ways that time out of the workforce negatively affects a woman’s financial well-being over her lifetime:

  • Work-related skills may depreciate, she says, generating a lifetime of lower earnings as a result. “It’s better to work part-time than to completely leave the labor force, if possible.”
  • When you are not working for pay you tend to lose ties to your work-related social networks, making it more difficult to return later.
  • Time out of the labor force also means less time contributing to your retirement plan. “This can reduce one’s eventual pension substantially.”
  • Time out of the labor force also means fewer years contributing to Social Security, which also reduces your retirement payouts.
  • When you are not in the labor force you are not covered by Social Security Disability Insurance and could end up disabled and uninsured.

One estimate from the Center for American Progress suggests that over a lifetime, one year out of the labor force can cost a younger woman three to four times her annual salary when lost wages, wage growth, and retirement assets and benefits are considered, Mitchell notes.

“Insofar as women live longer and tend to retire earlier than men, they will need to build up a larger retirement nest egg in order to be financially secure in old age,” Mitchell argues. “Women need to work longer and save more, when possible, to meet this challenge.”

Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees with Mitchell. The consensus among scholars is that career breaks, particularly breaks of more than one year, are bad for women’s pay raises, advancement, and retirement savings, she says.

Glass is concerned that mothers who quit during the pandemic may have sent an invisible signal that they are less committed to their jobs and work than women who didn’t quit.

“Not everyone left their jobs, and in the long run that may hurt those who did, although it is too soon to tell, and I don’t have a crystal ball,” she says.

“Secretly, most people believe that when push comes to shove working mothers will put their children first,” she explains. This widespread bias against mothers as workers—identified via survey research—hurts working mothers, Glass says.

Nothing good for women will come out of the pandemic. POTENTIALLY FALSE.

Greater workplace flexibility may be the pandemic’s silver lining: Workplaces may become more family friendly and flexible for mothers, particularly for mothers in managerial and technical occupations, argues Glass.

“We’ve experienced telecommuting and remote work and it went well—virtual meetings worked; people were able to innovate while working outside the office,” she says.

“COVID has blown away the argument that people can only be productive in the office.”

Managers have seen that people can work from home two or three days per week and not disrupt the flow of work, she points out.

For mothers who value flexibility and work in positions that can be done remotely, “the work-from-home experience is good news,” she says. “Managers who call for all-hands-on-deck in the office could lose their best workers” if that flexibility is not maintained.

Glass sees pressure growing from Millennials for employers to create better work environments for parents. But it is too soon to gauge the long-term impact of workplace flexibility. Goldin is concerned that work-from-home schedules may create a “work ghetto for women” that “may not come with the same bonuses, pay increases, and promotions” as for men who put in five days per week in the office.

Until both men and women more equally “take advantage of the benefits of work flexibility, women who take the amenity could lose in the long run,” she suggests.

The costs of not working go beyond effects on finances. TRUE.

Employment can be good for mental health: Research shows that people who are unemployed after being laid off or fired are more likely to be depressed than others, Glass explains.

And being employed may also help slow memory decline later in life, new research published in the journal Neurology suggests.7 Women who were paid employees during early adulthood and midlife experienced slower rates of memory decline than those who weren’t paid employees, reports Elizabeth Rose Mayeda of the University of California, Los Angeles. As part of a team of researchers, she analyzed data on a nationally representative group of women ages 55 and older in the Health and Retirement Study, which tracked their work, marital, and parenthood histories and regularly assessed their memory over an average of 12 years.

Taking time off from work when their children were young did not seem to decrease the cognitive benefit of work for married mothers.

The researchers’ hunch is that the cognitive stimulation and social engagement that the workplace offers may help explain how employment can help maintain a healthy brain and slow the rate of memory loss, she explains. The team did not examine the types of work women did or the impact of volunteer work on cognitive function, which could offer similar benefits, according to Mayeda.

So, what’s the bottom line?

More women lost jobs than men at the start of the pandemic, and while many have returned to work, more than 1.7 million fewer women are in the labor force in October 2021 than in January 2020. Time out of the labor force has negative implications for women’s health and financial well-being. And challenges loom for the millions of women who remain in the labor force. Many have struggled with stress and psychological distress. Many will continue to struggle with changing workplace norms—which may either usher in a new era of workplace flexibility for all or exacerbate existing gender inequity.

 
 
 
 

References

1 Based on PRB analysis of employment data for women and men ages 20 and older from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women lost more jobs than men early in the pandemic across three separate measures: compared with employment the prior month, compared with the same month in 2019, and compared with “pre-pandemic” employment in January 2020.

2 Daniel L. Carlson, and Richard J. Petts, “Workplace Supports, Domestic Labor, and Labor Force Participation During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” paper presented at the 2021 COVID-19 and Families Symposium hosted by Bowling Green State University, April 15, 2021.

3 Calarco, Jessica McCrory et  al., “By Default: How Mothers in Different-Sex Dual-Earner Couples Account for Inequalities in Pandemic Parenting, Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (2021).

4 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, COVID-19’s Impact on Women’s Work Experiences: Challenges and Opportunities Webinar, June 24, 2021.

5 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, COVID-19’s Impact on Women’s Work Experiences: Challenges and Opportunities Webinar.

6 Gema Zamarro and María J. Prados, “Gender Differences in Couples’ Division of Childcare, Work, and Mental Health During COVID-19,” Review of Economics of the Household 19 (2021): 11–40.

7 Elizabeth Rose Mayeda et al., “Association of Work-Family Experience With Mid- and Late-Life Memory Decline in U.S. Women,” Neurology 95, no. 23 (2020): e3072-e3080.