Women Bear the Brunt of the COVID-19 Recession

A major setback after decades of progress

By Anthony P. Carnevale and Artem Gulish

This blog post is part of a series tracking how COVID-19 is affecting American workers. Previous posts focused on which demographic groups have been most affected economically by COVID-19, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 economy on Black workers and Latino workers.

The economic devastation of the COVID-19 recession has disproportionately affected women. Before the crisis, women had lower unemployment rates than men, but the economic effects of the pandemic have eroded their economic footing. The unemployment rate for women skyrocketed between February and April, from 3.4 percent to 16.2 percent, and remained at 14.5 percent in May. By comparison, the unemployment rate for men increased from 3.6 percent in February to 13.5 percent in April before dropping to 12.2 percent in May.

This crisis has become a major setback for women’s progress in the workforce. Despite the pernicious gender wage gap, women had made remarkable gains in employment for decades. Between 1963 and 2000, women’s labor-force participation rate surged from 38 percent to 60 percent, while men’s labor-force participation rate declined from 81 percent to 75 percent. Although both men’s and women’s labor-force participation had declined since, women had continued to strengthen their labor-market position. Just before the COVID-19 recession began, women hit a milestone of holding the majority of payroll jobs in the US workforce. They have long outpaced men in educational attainment, earning more degrees than men at every attainment level.

Then the COVID-19 crisis struck. During the week of May 28 through June 2, the majority of women (51%) were not working, compared to 43 percent of men (Figure 1). In part, this reflected women’s higher likelihood of working in jobs that were deeply affected by the COVID-19 downturn, such as those in childcare, leisure and hospitality, and retail. It also reflected a significant difference between this recession and the Great Recession of 2007–09. During the Great Recession — which some dubbed a “man-cession” — men bore 78 percent of job losses, largely because of declines in two industries that were major sources of blue-collar jobs for men, construction and manufacturing. And the Great Recession was not an exception: men had borne the brunt of recessions since at least 1969.

Figure 1. Women are much more likely than men to be out of a job in the COVID-19 recession.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 28–June 2, 2020.

While women are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 recession in the workforce, the economic impact is felt by everyone in their households. As more women have entered the workforce over the last few decades, households have come to depend on women’s employment as an integral part of their financial resources — sometimes as the primary source of income. As a result, job losses for women make both women and their families more economically vulnerable: during the COVID-19 crisis, 47 percent of women have experienced a loss of employment income in their households. The impact has fallen disproportionately on women with less formal education, in part because they are more likely to work in the industries most affected by COVID-related closures. Among women with a high school diploma or less, half have lost employment income in their households since mid-March; among those with some college and associate’s degrees, 52 percent have lost employment income. In contrast, 43 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree, and 36 percent of women with a master’s degree or higher, lost employment income in their households within the same period (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Half of women with a high school diploma or less have lost employment income in their household since mid-March, compared to 36 percent of women with a master’s degree or higher.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 28–June 2, 2020.

Women also bear a disproportionate share of family and childcare responsibilities. With many childcare facilities shuttered and many schools closed or providing instruction online, the burden of childcare and homeschooling has fallen heavily on women. In many cases, women with children cannot even turn to extended family members or babysitters for help due to social distancing practices necessitated by the pandemic. As a result, the increased need for childcare has had a disproportionate impact on women’s ability to work: in the week of May 28 through June 2, 8 percent of women who were out of work said they were out of work because they were caring for children who were not in school or daycare, compared to 2 percent of men (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Women are four times more likely to report that they are not working to care for children who are not in school or daycare than men who are not working.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 28–June 2, 2020.

Black women, Latina women, and women of other or multiple races and ethnicities have been particularly negatively affected in the COVID-19 economy. Among Latina women, 62 percent have lost employment income in their households since mid-March. Among women of other or multiple races and ethnicities, that share was 57 percent; among Black women, it was 51 percent. In comparison, 46 percent of Asian women and 42 percent of White women have lost employment income in their households (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Latina women have been especially likely to experience a loss of employment income in their household during the COVID-19 recession.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 28–June 2, 2020.

Note: Other includes any race not otherwise specified and combinations of multiple races.

Women’s employment is just as important as men’s employment. Women’s growing presence in the workforce has underpinned much social progress over the past 50 years by allowing women to gain financial independence, and women’s earnings have become indispensable to their households. Policymakers must ensure that the COVID-19 employment crisis is treated with the same urgency as previous recessions that have disproportionately affected men. Recovery efforts must provide women opportunities to return to the workforce, along with the social and economic supports that will allow them to do so, including access to affordable childcare, equal pay, and paid parental leave.

Dr. Carnevale is the director and research professor and Artem Gulish is the senior policy strategist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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