Women dropped out of the labor force in staggeringly high numbers last month, underscoring how female workers have disproportionately borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, in large part because of changes to child care and schooling.
The disparity threatens to set back decades of progress in closing workplace gender gaps and hinder the overall recovery from the coronavirus recession.
The September jobs report released earlier this month found that 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, compared to just 216,000 men.
One of the main reasons, experts say, is due to child care.
“Because so many families with children are struggling to address care issues, it’s created a great burden on parents, and that burden is disproportionately high on women,” said Heather Boushey, president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
“We know from all the data that women have a disproportionate responsibility for care at home, and what that means is that as COVID has happened, it can make it incredibly difficult to do their jobs from home,” she added.
Census figures from August found that about a fifth of working-age adults weren’t working because of child care. A large majority of them were women, who were almost three times as likely as men to report that child care problems prevented them from working.
One driving force behind that disparity, Boushey said, can be traced to societal norms.
“This is just a responsibility that, given historical and traditional gender roles, women are taking on,” Boushey said.
But there are other factors at play as well.
Women, on average, earn 81 percent of what men make, so when parents are forced to cut back on work for child care purposes, it often makes financial sense for women to give up their salary instead of men.
Philip Fisher, a professor at the University of Oregon who has been running a regular survey on childhood wellbeing since the pandemic began, said very few families have found alternative forms of care for their children since schools have started holding classes online.
“What we found was that the great majority of families, 87 percent, said only they or their spouse was taking care of the older children’s online learning. When it came to the younger children, 90 percent of their families said they were taking care of younger children,” he said.
“In many families, one person has given up working to take on the child care and education responsibility, and oftentimes that’s the woman,” he added.
Lower income households often rely on friends and neighbors for child care, and those who provide support are often women.
The problems driving the gender disparity have only compounded since key provisions of the CARES Act, such as expanded unemployment and access to emergency small-business loans, expired at the end of July. The number of households reporting difficulty covering basic expenses rose from 20 percent before the benefits expired to 40 percent after. For single-parent households, which are disproportionately headed by women, that figure jumped to 60 percent.
The financial burdens of child care are exacerbating a recession that, unusually, has hit female-dominated industries harder, said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“Women are heavily overrepresented in these sectors where the economic shock is hitting, and that’s really atypical,” he said.
Most economic downturns hit the goods sector, which is sensitive to sudden shifts in price and supply chain disruptions, harder than the less-volatile service industry. But since women make up a larger proportion of workers in service-oriented jobs, particularly travel, leisure and entertainment, they have suffered more than men during the pandemic.
“There’s this push out of jobs, and that’s just based on having blown our response to the public health crisis. So we just have way fewer face-to-face service jobs than we did nine months ago,” he said.
If women find themselves out of the workforce for an extended period of time because they are saddled with child care and their industries are slow to recover, that could have a long-lasting impact on the broader economic recovery.
“The effects of having time out of the labor force compound over time, so if we don’t do something to get these people who were working back to work, it’s going to have a long-term effect on GDP,” Madowitz said.
To help guard against that, economists across the board argue, Congress needs to approve another massive COVID-19 relief package.
Talks between Congress and the White House in recent weeks have inspired little hope of a deal that would stimulate the economy, fill holes in the safety net and set up a more robust framework for containing the virus.
Boushey said that beyond public health measures, fueling a strong economic recovery will require the government to establish policies for safely reopening schools, a move that would allow more women to return to the workforce.
“That should be the first priority, over everything else,” she said.