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Hurt Most by the Pandemic, Women Need Economic Justice
by Yesenia Vargas and Seth Jacobson
2020 started on a historic high note: Women held the majority (50.4%) of jobs in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade. Then COVID-19 came along. It didn’t take long for institutions like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and even the United Nations to notice that women were being hit harder by the pandemic. They were more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be overworked and less likely to have access to a social safety net.
The Biden administration has committed to policies meant to help women recover economically, such as equal pay and paid family leave, along with top-level changes, such as women in cabinet positions and the revival of the Gender Policy Council. These measures, however, are already facing pushback. But the statistics describing how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women in our economy are undeniable, and only targeted policies can root these inequities out.
The Erosion of Women in the Workforce
Past recessions have tended to hit male-dominated jobs in manufacturing the hardest, but COVID-19 has decimated the service sector instead, which tends to have female-dominated fields. Hospitality, retail, childcare, education, the arts and nonprofits were all gutted due to the pandemic, and women made up 60% of the first wave of layoffs. That percentage has only climbed since then.
But some workers aren’t being let go; they’re being forced to quit. Of those, the vast majority are women. Last July, the Washington Post reported that 25% of women who left the workforce during the pandemic cited lack of childcare, twice the rate of their male counterparts. In September four times as many women as men dropped out of the workplace of their own volition.
In some of these cases, women were in a dual-income heterosexual household and could afford to give up their job to look after the children. But we cannot ignore the role of discriminatory pay gaps in causing those situations nor the role of pervasive sexism, especially considering the percentage of Americans who believe children are better off when a woman is home compared to a man. And that’s not even touching single-income households, where women have been forced to choose between providing for their families or being able to physically care for them.
Women are the backbone of our essential industries: They are 66% of grocery store cashiers, currently one of the most stressful and least rewarding jobs in the country, and the majority of healthcare workers globally (an industry that has a 28% gender pay gap compared to the overall gender pay gap of 16%). All in all, one-third of working women are employed in industries that are considered essential. Given the stressors placed on these industries during the pandemic, it’s no wonder that Bloomberg News concedes that “America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights.”
But women are also the essential workers at home, shouldering the bulk of the housework, schooling and childcare. Compound that reality with the fact that women are more likely to be responsible for caring for sick family members, and you end up with a high number of women whose daily existence has been a relentless stream of working, cooking, cleaning, teaching and nurturing since the pandemic began. Interestingly, men see themselves as contributing just as much, if not more. Last May, the New York Times ran a telling article entitled “Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree.”
It’s not that women tend to hold low-wage jobs. It’s that jobs become undervalued and underpaid by men once women dominate the field.
A Lack of Structural and Legal Support for Women
Despite women’s involvement in essential industries, they have shockingly low incomes to show for it. Prior to COVID-19, the United States panned minimum-wage essential jobs as “unskilled labor” and allocated wages accordingly. Caregivers and domestic workers, for instance, are not only underpaid, they have also been systematically excluded from federal labor and employment protections such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. And gig economy workers, the majority of whom are women, also lack healthcare, pensions, regulated minimum wage, paid sick leave or even set maximum working hours.
When COVID-19 hit and the gig economy crumbled, it was mostly women who were left with no social safety net. Their hours became more unpredictable, the majority weren’t provided with or reimbursed for PPE, and their work was carried out with the constant worry that, should they land in the hospital with COVID-19, they would be left to fend for themselves.
Centering Women in COVID-19 Recovery Plans
Over the past year, America’s mismanagement of the pandemic has managed to undo decades of economic progress for women. Recovery won’t be easy, but we cannot afford to ignore the issue and hope it solves itself. Reopening the economy isn’t a magical fix-it, after all. Earlier this month, the United States received a pointed report from Human Rights Watch recommending that “in addition to an extension of the federal moratorium on evictions, there should be a national moratorium on shutoffs of water, electricity, broadband, and heat for inability to pay.”
In addition to those moratoriums, economic reforms should target barriers to women’s reentry to the workforce through measures such as free childcare and strengthened paid leave policies. Raising the minimum wage and establishing gender parity are also key, since women would be the main beneficiaries of these policies.
Secondly, but no less importantly: men need to start pulling their weight. Phrases like “women are more likely to shoulder the majority of housework” could easily be “men are less likely to contribute equally to the housework.” More pointedly, it’s not that women tend to hold low-wage jobs. It’s that jobs become undervalued and underpaid by men once women dominate the field. It happened with teaching, it happened with nursing, and it’s going to happen with IT unless we establish structural change. That starts with pay transparency.
The United States has always prided itself on having an innovative economy. As vaccination efforts ramp up and full reopening approaches, it’s natural to feel optimistic about life returning to normal. But that frankly won’t be possible without women, and our new economy will either realize that or fall behind.
This piece originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.