Women Were Making Historic Strides in the Workforce. Then the Pandemic Hit

Emily Barone

Yasmine Parrish was at the top of her game. The marketing consultant from Los Angeles, who works with fashion and beauty brands, was successfully placing her clients in conferences, speaking engagements and consumer-driven events around the country.

“I made more money in February than any other month in my whole career,” says Parrish, 32. “I was at a place I had always wanted to be in terms of caliber of clients.”

Then the pandemic hit. Events across the country were canceled, slashing Parrish’s income by about two thirds. She filed for unemployment benefits and mortgage payments nearly depleted her $6,000 in savings. Now, she’s trying to pivot her business to other marketing channels that don’t rely on the kinds of crowded events that have been canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus.

Parrish’s situation is familiar to millions of women across the U.S. Employment figures released June 5 show that the economic downturn triggered by COVID-19 has been devastating for women in particular. When the country first locked down, women dropped from the workforce at a higher rate than men. Now, as the country begins to reopen, women are being re-employed at a slower rate than men—an early sign that the economic pain will last much longer for women.

Women accounted for 55% of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But they accounted for only 45% of the 2.5 million jobs that came back in May. Just months before the virus appeared in the U.S., women ticked past 50% of the workforce for the first time during a non-recessionary period in American history. (Women briefly held a majority during the Great Recession, mostly because male-heavy industries like manufacturing and construction were getting especially pummeled.) Now, that number has fallen to 49.2%—the lowest since 2008.

“We finally get to this point, and are a majority, and now we are sliding back,” says Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center. “We wiped out all the gains from the last decade in a month.”

Historically, recessions have caused Americans to put the brakes on their discretionary spending, resulting in less production of goods. That typically affected male-dominated industries like manufacturing more so than fields where women have traditionally had a greater presence, like education and food services. “In all postwar-period recessions, men have been hit harder than women,” says Titan Alon, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California San Diego. “This situation is atypical.” That’s largely because this recession was triggered by shutdowns of specific kinds of businesses in the name of public health. In many of these fields—like education, health care, and leisure and hospitality—women are overrepresented, according to the BLS. And not only are these the sectors that have been most affected by social distancing measures, they are the ones that may take the longest to recover.

Further, in a research paper published in early April, Alon forecasted that stay-at-home measures would result in higher rates of unemployment for women, based on his findings that 28% of male workers in the U.S. have jobs that are easily done from home, compared to only 22% of female workers.

“Women were working in jobs that are just gone,” says Tucker. “People won’t be going on vacation for a long time. Restaurants are opening but there will be less capacity. You are not hiring back your whole workforce.”

Still, these factors only explain part of the disparity. Women have been affected across the board, losing jobs at disproportionate rates in most industries and returning to the workforce slower than their male colleagues—even in sectors where employment levels have been essentially gender neutral. In retail, for instance, women held 50% of pre-COVID jobs. But they suffered 60% of the industry’s losses through April and accounted for only 49% of the gains in May. Similarly, in professional and business services, where women represented 46% of the industry, they endured more than half of the losses through April and accounted for only a third of the gains in May.

Policy experts say this is largely a consequence of women having to juggle employment and caring for family in a country with an inadequate social support system. Regardless of the industry in which they work, women have been impacted by the closures of schools and childcare—which was not a major issue in prior recessions.

“What do you do when stay-at-home orders are lifted but there is no school or camp?” asks Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “If you are in the service sector, where if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid—those are the calculations women are making.”

Parrish, the L.A.-based marketing consultant, has felt these pressures first-hand. As a single mom, she was left with little time to pursue new work opportunities when her son’s preschool closed. “It’s hard to perform at peak level with the clients that I kept,” she says. Rebuilding her business will continue to be a challenge if school doesn’t reopen full-time in the fall. Parrish also knows that, as a black person, she will face additional challenges. In May, after a half-dozen interviews, she was passed over for a position at a company that sells beauty and baby products. She had hoped her decade of experience and breadth of industry contacts would help land her the job, but a friend at the company told her that the position ultimately went to a white woman.

In returning to the workforce, women of color face a double challenge. They make up a significant part of the service sectors that are likely to be slowest to re-employ workers. Additionally, they face racist and sexist discrimination that makes it more difficult to land a job even in strong economic times.

The data verify that women of color are dealing with more economic hardship than their white peers. Overall, less than 14% of women over the age of 20 are currently unemployed. But among Hispanic women the rate is 19%, and among black women it’s 16.5%—an uptick from 16.4% in April, despite improvements for nearly every demographic.

“There will be disparities in hiring back,” says Tucker. “Just think about the opportunities that white men get versus black women get.”

Parrish is hopeful that the protests against institutional racism that have swept the country in recent weeks will make companies be more mindful of inclusive hiring practices. But ultimately, she says, “the best diversity strategy in the world won’t mean anything if employers can’t check biases. This movement has to change people’s minds.”