A she-cession? Women hit hardest during COVID-19 downturn

A she-cession? Women hit hardest during COVID-19 downturn
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Women held 55 percent of the jobs lost in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Female-dominated service sectors such as food service, hospitality, and child care were among the hardest hit. This drove women's unemployment up to 15.5 percent, a historic high, in April.

As with many things, the pandemic will reveal many things about the American economy and shape its future. This COVID-induced "she-cession" has important implications:

First, it's worth noting the unprecedented level of economic success American women were enjoying just before the pandemic. A strong economy was fueling a tight labor market, creating a high demand for labor across sectors. Women's unemployment in February 2020 was 3.5 percent, just below men's at 3.6 percent. This was a record low, and no surprise, given women's progress in recent decades in education: Now the majority of our college-educated workforce is female. 

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Between 2017 to 2018, women started 1,821 net new businesses each day. In 2018, there were 12.3 million women-owned businesses (40 percent of all firms), employing 8 percent of the total private-sector workforce. In 2018, the poverty rate for families headed by single mothers fell 1.7 percentage points to 26.8 percent, the lowest rate for this group on record.

Sadly, the pandemic will reverse many of these positive trends, shuttering businesses, destroying livelihoods, and sending more households back into poverty and dependency. But thankfully, the economy before COVID was strong, and women were prime beneficiaries, and many of these trends will help women and the economy come back.

Second, the "she-cession" is not the result of any sexist design, or top-down "occupational segregation" but rather the choices of men and women, that, ironically, demonstrated the strength of our economy, not a weakness. 

As AEI scholar Christina Hoff Sommers has noted, women and men's voluntary segregation into different occupations and behaviors is not a mark of oppression, but social well-being.

In other words, as economies advance, they allow both men and women to make choices more in line with their preferences, and according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, differences between men and women tend to be largest in the most prosperous countries. Despite left-wing feminist claims to the contrary, most women, especially mothers, prefer jobs that allow them to spend more time with their families, to work with people, and in safe environments, even though such jobs result in less income. 

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Safety helps explain why more women are losing their jobs than men: Many men are keeping their jobs in public safety, mass transit, and energy infrastructure, to name a few "essential" industries. The reason these jobs are unattractive to many women is the same reason they pay more: they're less safe. That's the reason men are 10 times more likely to be killed on the job than women. And it's one of the contributing factors behind the "wage gap" that shows that, on average, men earn more. Importantly, the wage gap doesn't compare equal work but compares raw averages that don't take into account factors like field, hours, work conditions, experience, or other benefits. 

Finally, just as a "she-cession" might exacerbate disparities between men and women, it may also exacerbate disparities among women in various situations, particularly regarding their marriage, education, and economic status. 

Married women, particularly those married to men who can sustain an income during the pandemic, will benefit from this stability. Indeed, even absent an epidemic, stable marriages often provide important financial security for both partners. Sadly, marriage rates in the U.S. have declined from about three-fourths of the population to about half in recent decades. And marriage has increasingly become a stable institution only for Americans with higher levels of education and socioeconomic status. 

Unmarried women, particularly those with children and lower levels of education and resources, will face the hardest challenges. With mass school and daycare closures, child care is a significant challenge, even if jobs become available.

Many women, particularly those with white-collar jobs, are presently benefitting from extreme workplace flexibility as they work from home. We can hope that this trend extends beyond the pandemic and expands to as many workers as possible, even outside high-paying jobs. 

But our greatest hope for a swift recovery for women is to mitigate the worst pandemic risk with sensible precautions while reopening as many sectors of the economy as possible, particularly the childcare sector so that we can return to the economic success seen just before COVID-19. 

Hadley Heath Manning is the policy director at Independent Women's Forum.