The pandemic forced millions of women out of the workforce – many have not returned

Women at work. (Photo by CoWomen/Unsplash)

By Claudia Chiappa
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – For many people, the pandemic is starting to resemble a nightmare we are finally escaping. Over 18 months since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, most businesses are open again, most students have returned to their classes, and most workers are employed again. 

But this does not apply to everyone.

For many women who lost their jobs, there is no return to normalcy. Unlike their male counterparts, thousands of women and mothers still struggle to return to the workforce, and a gender disparity that has long existed persists – and worsens. 

When the pandemic first hit, the United States lost a total of over 20 million jobs, worse than any recession in modern history. Women accounted for 55% of those losses according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gender disparity in the workforce is hardly a new issue. Even before the pandemic, data shows that men and women were employed at significantly different rates. However, the pandemic widened these already existing gender gaps in the labor force, as found by a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston earlier this year.

The April report was based on the analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data from the Current Population Survey analyzed in the report shows that in February 2020, 86% of men ages 25-54 were working, compared to 75% of women in the same category. While both groups suffered when COVID-19 shut down many industries and wreaked havoc all over the country, women are still struggling to recover. 

“It was very clear that women were doing worse than men, in particular women with kids,” said María Luengo-Prado, a senior economist and policy advisor in the research department at the Boston Fed and author of the report. “This gap that already existed widened.”

Both demographics experienced a huge decline in employment throughout 2020, but by this September, 85% of men were back working, said Luengo-Prado. For women, the number was still only 72%.

There are many reasons that play into women’s struggle to return to the workforce at the same rate as their male counterparts. One of these is child care, experts say. 

When schools switched to remote learning last year, many parents were forced to stay home and support their education. When it came down to choosing which parent would give up their job, the choice overwhelmingly fell on mothers. 

“The evidence somewhat points to gender roles in the home, and women being the primary caregivers for their children as a principal reason for women leaving the labor force,” said Dartmouth College visiting sociology professor Kristin Smith.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve shows that over 30% of women ages 25-44 were not working due to child care demands, compared to 12.1% of men in the same age group.

“What you see is that some women without children returned to the labor force at a higher rate than women with children,” said Luengo-Prado.

In September 2020, women experienced what Smith called a mass exodus from the workforce. 

Data show 1.1 million workers over age 20 dropped out of the workforce, a number that becomes even more telling when you bring gender into consideration. Out of those workers, women represented the 80% (865,000), a report by the National Women’s Law Center shows. This means that four times more women dropped out of the labor force than men. 

“In the fall of 2020 schools were trying to decide what they were going to do, and some were doing hybrids and some were doing remote,” said Smith. “And I think a number of mothers said that it was just untenable to be able to help their students with schooling, navigating that and continue working.”

The Boston Fed report shows that the number of men with children working this September (91%) is consistent with the number of men working in February 2020, showing that for working fathers, the pandemic had virtually no long-lasting effect on their careers. 

Working mothers, however, were working at a 72% rate in February 2020. Today, that number is down to 68.5%. 

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the closure of child care centers in March 2020. A study conducted by the Boston Opportunity Agenda using data from the Department of Early Education and Care shows that the number of licensed child care programs in Boston dropped from 682 in March 2020 to 573 in September of the same year, while the number of seats available dropped from 15,548 to 13,424 in the same period. 

“Before the pandemic, we had a child care crisis, with families finding it difficult to find adequate child care that they could afford,” Smith said. “And the pandemic has only made that more difficult. Right now we're at a point where a lot of child care has opened back up, but still there's families and there's women who are still giving as a reason for not working not being able to find child care.”

For many centers, there was no reopening at all. The same study found that by March 2021, the number of centers was up to 601, while the number of seats rose to 14,177, still far from the original number. The same report found that overall Boston permanently lost 13% of its licensed child care programs that were open pre-pandemic. And for the ones that reopened, safety regulations and labor shortages prevent them from performing at pre-pandemic levels. 

“If I'm a practitioner that owns a small center or if I'm a [family child care] provider, within a week, within a month, the question becomes: financially, will I be able to reopen?” said Amanda Storth, chair of the Public Policy Committee at the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children.

MAAEYC is the state affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Meeting the new safety regulations imposed by the state during the pandemic, Storth said, became a dire financial concern for many providers, who were already facing uncertainty. 

“Even one day closed, for a small provider especially but any level of provider, is a very big economic hit,” said Storth. “So not only had providers faced several weeks of no income, they were now looking at additional unknown expenditures.” 

On top of the financial strain caused by closure and regulations, many centers and providers faced a new challenge: labor shortage. A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children reported that 72% of child care centers are experiencing a staffing shortage in Massachusetts.

“We saw the workforce return, we definitely did, but not in the numbers needed to keep the classrooms open,” Storth said. “What I would say is we're really looking at a lot of interrelated problems, because the lack of spots and the lack of options for families is keeping parents, especially women, from returning to the workforce.”

Another way in which the pandemic widened the gender disparity in the workforce was the targeted shutdown of certain sectors. Many sectors, including education, hospitality, and health care, which were forced to shut down during the pandemic, are dominated by women. 

“Simultaneously, women have been called upon to work more and work in environments that somewhat ask them to be in contact with the public and potentially with COVID-19, as well as women's jobs have been the jobs that have been lost,” Smith said.

Other factors, Smith said, include wage gaps, lack of family paid leave, and lack of adequate medical leave. 

For some women, however, the pandemic might have been eye-opening.

“A lot of people are rethinking their priorities,” said Luengo-Prado. “We may have lost some women forever. It is possible that some of these women may never come back.”

A 2021 report on women in the workforce conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company found that one in three women said they have considered either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely this year. This shows an increase compared to 2020, where one in four women said the same. 

“The pandemic continues to take a toll on employees, and especially women,” reads the report. “Women are even more burned out than they were a year ago, and burnout is escalating much faster among women than men.”

Several proposals both at the state and federal levels are attempting to address the root causes of this gender disparity, starting with child care accessibility. President Joe Biden's proposed Build Back Better plan, introduced in July, includes making child care accessible and affordable, by creating free universal pre-K and paid family leave programs. 

“Having access to paid family and medical leave are all policies that exist in other industrialized countries,” Smith said. “The United States is sort of alone on that front, without having these options. And so what that means is that families are left on their own to figure this out.”

Storth said that one of the main priorities should be ensuring higher wages for educators and child care providers.

“When we look at wanting to get parents back into the workforce, really, what we're saying is we want to provide them the option,” Storth said. “Ultimately, that's their choice, but we want to make sure it is a choice that they really have. And the best way to do that is to keep educators in the workforce and attract new educators in the workforce, and we do that by paying them higher salaries.”

Bills in the Massachusetts Statehouse attempt to address the child care crisis. For example, bills H.605 and S.362 in the Senate propose affordable early education and care for families in the state.

“The next few years could be sort of a change in the direction that the country has been going, or if these [bills] don't go through then families will continue to struggle,” said Smith.

This article was part of a package created by the Boston University Statehouse Program about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts.

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