Western expert: Pandemic sparked a 'she-cession,' disproportionately forcing women out of the workforce

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The economic crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic could set working women back decades. For 40 years, women's labor force participation rates have increased. That changed in February 2020.

"What's happened over the last year has just been striking," says Dr. Jean Kimmel, professor of economics at Western Michigan University. "I think this has caused a historic shift in the trajectory in the lives and careers of women."

A major driving force is the decimation of the service industry, which shed hundreds of thousands of jobs during mandated shutdowns.

A mom talks on the phone while a child jumps and throws papers in the background.

A Pew Trust analysis found moms of young kids lost more than 2 million jobs just between February and August 2020.

"The COVID-19 crisis is, at its core, a low-wage worker crisis right now, because the unemployment rate is so much higher for low-wage workers," Kimmel says. "Women are represented more in the low-wage workforce than men."

Researchers are calling it a "she-cession," and it's hitting working mothers particularly hard. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports moms were laid off or furloughed at a rate three times working dads due to COVID-19—a Pew Trust analysis found women with kids under 12 lost 2.2 million jobs between February and August 2020 alone. A recent survey by consulting firm McKinsey also found one in four women considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely during the pandemic. 

"We've never had institutions that were particularly supportive of working parents (in the United States)," Kimmel says. "So, to a certain extent, it's not a surprise that they crumbled in the face of COVID-19."

Exacerbated by the shift to virtual schooling, Kimmel says the pandemic has highlighted the lack of support for and access to childcare in the United States. Early pandemic-related restrictions forced the closure of many childcare facilities, which also increased strain on parents working from home while also supervising online learning. While schools are now ramping up in-person learning across the country, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation says temporary disruptions in child care could have lasting impacts on the workforce.

"Child care is the foundation of our economy, enabling more than 14 million parents with young children to participate in the workforce," says Cherly Oldham, senior vice president of the foundation. "It's clear that if we don't find long-term cross-sector solutions to this crisis, the negative impact on our workforce and economy will be felt for years to come."

A mom holds a baby while working on her computer on the kitchen counter.

Unfortunately, for many women in the workforce, Kimmel says the damage is already done—a troubling projection considering the Center for American progress estimates women's labor contributes nearly $8 trillion to the nation's gross domestic product annually.

"This is a turning point for (America). The potential destruction of women's careers is really troubling," she says. "I think 20 years from now, 40 years from now, our country is going to still be suffering the consequences in terms of reduced economic growth."

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