Between lack of childcare, lost employment and wages, and poor workplace policies, women have been unequally set back by COVID-19, but the problems facing working women already existed—they've just been given a spotlight.

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Between the ongoing health crisis and economic insecurity, it's fair to say that COVID-19 has wreaked unimaginable havoc on the world. To make matters worse, experts have observed the concerning trend that women in the workforce have been unequally impacted by the pandemic's shockwaves. That's not to say men haven't suffered unemployment, but the reasons many women stopped working deserve serious consideration, and when you look at women of color and women in lower income brackets, the disparities become even more pronounced.

A report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that in February 2020, women held more than half of the jobs in the U.S., yet over the course of the last year, two million women left the labor force. There are a few different reasons why this is happening. First, with school closures and childcare becoming inaccessible, many women had to leave their jobs to become full-time caregivers and teachers. Then there's the matter of many women working in the hospitality and service industry, which saw more job loss than other sectors due to coronavirus concerns. The problems facing working women aren't new—they've just been given a spotlight, but experts say systematic solutions exist that could help, if implemented. Let's dive in.

The Role of Caregiver

According to a PEW Research Center report based on past surveys, even before the pandemic began, women reported carrying the heavier load when it comes to "parenting and household responsibilities." This translated into work, as "working moms were more likely than working dads to say they faced certain challenges at work" because they were balancing family responsibilities. The data shows women were passed on for promotions and other big projects, and treated like they weren't committed to their work simply because they had children. "Caregiver discrimination is real," says Sarah Jane Glynn, a senior fellow at CAP. "Women who take time off work to care for an ill person or a new baby have a harder time getting back to work, and suffer wage penalties." The U.S. is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. "Men get denied opportunities to spend time with their family because of these structures; there's no guaranteed paternity leave, and it's usually less time if there is," Glynn adds.

Throughout 2020, the need for women to step into caregiver roles skyrocketed. When childcare became inaccessible, whether it was daycare, after-school programs, summer camps, or any type of structured supervision, it left a huge gap for parents to fill. The same idea applies to senior care, when coronavirus threatened nursing homes and other living communities. Because of our society's gender structure, this burden of care mostly fell on women to resolve, causing a mass exodus from the workforce. "COVID-19 didn't cause this, it just widened the cracks," says Glynn. "Historically, if you had enough money you could buy your way out of these types of problems, but when the care just wasn't available, everyone's in the same boat." This work loss doesn't just affect individual families. The CAP report estimated that the risk of mothers leaving the labor force and reducing work hours for care-taking responsibilities amounts to a $64.5 billion loss per year in wages and economic activity. For context, that's roughly the same as the GDP for the entire state of New Hampshire.

Hospitality, Service, and Healthcare Industry Jobs

The next factor to be considered are the industries that have been most impacted by the pandemic. Per a Gallup poll, the most female-saturated industries are healthcare, personal care, education, social service, office support, and food preparation and serving. "Home aid positions were also affected, and are usually filled by immigrant women and women of color," says Glynn. "This work is so important, but these employees had to think about the risk to their safety and their families, while getting paid minimum wage, or close to it."

The hospitality industry is especially problematic. According to an NPR podcast with journalist and author Hanna Rosin, this industry is laying off Black and Latina women at higher rates than white women. It's more than just getting laid off though. The pandemic was a scenario these jobs didn't have safety nets for, like paid sick leave, health insurance, and flexible work schedules. Employees across these industries saw significant job loss, but in addition to forced unemployment, it was the lack of workplace safeguards, the need for at-home care, and the risk to health and safety that caused many women to make the difficult decision to leave their employment. So, what can be done to prevent this outcome during the next global crisis?

Going Forward

The first thing to do is adjust our perspective as a society toward caregiving. "We've been proactively socialized to believe childcare is an individual's problem, which creates mother's guilt and makes it harder for women to ask for change," says Julie Kashen, director for Women's Economic Justice and senior fellow at The Century Foundation. "Child education and welfare is a public good like clean water. It's something the government should invest in. In this case, personal is the political and deserves collective solutions." Paid parent leave is an obvious next step toward this goal.

We're also coming up on the 50th anniversary of President Nixon vetoing the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which was passed in a bi-partisan Congress and would have created a national daycare system designed to help working parents. "For 50 years, we've been dealing with the consequences of that decision, and the pandemic has just exasperated it," says Kashen. More accessible and affordable childcare is a must. "If you look at the most recent employment data for women, it's starting to creep back up, because they are re-entering the labor force," adds Glynn. "But the caveat is, it's not just about finding a job, it's about the quality of that job. We're seeing small upticks, but they're in industries with low wages, no benefits, and no path to career advancement. That's not sustainable employment. The unemployment numbers don't tell the whole story. The devil is in the details."

"We shouldn't be thinking about how to go back to normal," Glynn continues. "We should focus on how to become better insulated to these types of shocks; better access to care, workplace policies that allow sick days, paid medical leave, and schedule flexibility. It's easier to weather unforeseen situations with good jobs that have these policies in place. And it's important to raise the floor for everybody through public policy."

"What we're seeing is 100-percent a gender and racial justice issue, and it's one of those situations where investing in equality and equity is better for overall economic growth," concludes Kashen.

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