COVID-19 and Women’s Employment
Friday’s release of U.S. employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics included some startling numbers about women’s labor force participation. 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September as compared to 216,000 men, evidence suggestive of the disproportionate burden faced by women with children during this pandemic. COVID-induced childcare needs and schooling disruptions present challenges for families which appear to be largely absorbed by women. Recent research sheds light on this differential economic impact, including its magnitude, causes, and long-term consequences.
Maternal Employment and Work Hours
Research using data from the U.S. Current Population Survey, published in June, quantified the early pandemic effects of decreased in-person activity, including the shift to remote schooling, on maternal employment. As schools and daycares closed or operated remotely, families took on increased caregiving responsibilities, often shouldered by female family members. The researchers found pronounced reductions in work hours among mothers of young children. In particular, among dual-earner, heterosexual married couples with children, the authors find that mothers reduced work hours 4-5 times more than fathers.
Others have noted that increased childcare demands are also responsible for working mothers’ exit from the labor force. Analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress, for example, finds that from April through July, roughly a third of unemployed mothers cited closures of school and/or childcare for their decision not to work. In addition, research out of the U.S. Census Bureau reports that mothers were nearly three times more likely than fathers to leave their job for these reasons. Recent analysis by The Washington Post similarly found that mothers of children ages 6 to 17 saw employment fall by about a third more than fathers of children the same age, and that mothers’ labor force participation has rebounded at a slower rate than fathers’ return to work. Reporting in The New York Times notes that these patterns could be even more pronounced for women in occupations with less power over their work schedule, such as retail jobs. A recent working paper supports these arguments by modeling the contributors to the greater increase in women’s unemployment as compared to men’s unemployment from February to April 2020 (12.8 percentage points and 9.9 percentage points, respectively). Consistent with other evidence, the authors note that much of the difference in unemployment is attributable to the disproportionate childcare burden on women. They also note that women’s employment is concentrated in sectors that have experienced high pandemic-induced job losses (i.e., high-contact service sectors like restaurants, hospitality, and travel).
Many fear that the effects of the pandemic on women’s labor force participation—particularly borne by mothers navigating childcare gaps, school closures, and remote learning—will persist past the period of economic recession. As reported in Politico, Betsey Stevenson, former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor and member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers stated, “the impact of the child care crisis on women’s outcomes is going to be felt over the next decade.” Women with children are facing greater impact from the economic downturn, which distinguishes this recession from previous ones and suggests important longer-term ramifications for their careers, including reduced future earnings potential and employment risk. Women who faced challenges from childcare and schooling disruptions during COVID-19 may also be less likely to meet or exceed performance expectations and receive merit-based opportunities and rewards in the future. These impacts could be especially acute if employers plan to use the same, pre-pandemic methods for evaluating employee performance. Flexibility among employers, more robust supports for working mothers, and adherence to health protocols to ensure safe and swift reopening of childcare and schools will all set women’s career trajectories on a better, post-COVID-19 path.