The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.
But the long-term impact may be more concerning.
Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.
But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.
That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.
It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.
Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.
There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.
And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.
What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.
COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.