Nearly 36.5 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past two months as a result of the coronavirus crisis, with 2.981 million of those claims being filed for the week ending May 9. Though the pandemic has undoubtedly impacted millions of Americans, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women are disproportionately feeling the brunt of these losses.
In April alone, women accounted for 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the number of women who lost employment last month is greater than the 11.1 million jobs women gained between the end of the Great Recession in July 2010 and the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in February 2020.
“Last month’s shattering job losses make clear that women are in the bullseye of this pandemic,” Emily Martin, VP for education and workplace justice at NWLC, said in a statement. “In leisure, hospitality, education, health care and retail — the sectors that are getting hit the hardest — women are the ones who are falling victim to the first massive waves of this economic crisis.”
In many of the industries where employee cuts have been made, women are not only losing their jobs, but they are also losing them at a disproportionately higher rate than men who work in the same field.
For example, in the leisure and hospitality sector, women accounted for 52% of the industry workforce, but made up 54% of job losses. In education and health services, women made up 77% of the workforce, but accounted for 83% of job losses. In retail, women made up 48% of the workforce, but accounted for 61% of job losses. And in local and state government jobs, women made up 58% of the workforce, but accounted for 63% of job losses.
Martin tells CNBC Make It that she believes the disproportionate rate at which women are losing jobs compared to men is not only linked to the industries women are overwhelmingly represented in, but also linked to the type of roles women hold in these industries.
“Women are disproportionately those who do the lowest paid jobs in our economy,” she says, while noting that women of color in particular are over-represented in low-wage roles. “And so, when you have a crisis like this, those jobs are often the first ones that employers let go. These are employees, who by definition, an employer isn’t valuing as much and so I think that’s one reason why we’re seeing women losing their jobs at higher rates.”
Currently, there are more than 23 million workers in the low-wage workforce, with women making up roughly 67% of this population, reports NWLC. These jobs, by NWLC definition, pay $11 per hour or less and include child-care workers, restaurant servers, maids and cashiers. Even in these low-wage roles, women are found to still be making an average of 15% less then their male counterparts, with women of color making even less than that.
“Another thing which is really unique about the current crisis compared to other recessions is that at the same moment where there is this real economic contraction, our whole caregiving infrastructure in this country has been shut down,” says Martin. She explains that with women still taking on the majority of caregiving responsibilities, the lack of child care they have at home could be impacting their availability to pick up extra shifts at work, therefore impacting their employment. “That might also be why women are feeling the punch of this a little harder because their flexibility is going down at the very moment when employers are trying to figure out who they need to let go.”
Billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates expressed her concern about this caregiving crisis on NBC’s “TODAY” show earlier this month stating that in order to prevent a loss of income for women due to child-care responsibilities, Congress needs to “start looking at a paid family medical leave policy.” Right now, she says, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without one.
In addition to paid family leave being a crucial component to keeping women in the workforce, Martin also adds that companies need to continue to prioritize their diversity and inclusion efforts to ensure that women and people of color aren’t left out of the economy once hiring picks up.
“One thing I’ve been disturbed about in recent weeks is some conversations of this idea that focusing on gender and racial equity is a luxury we can’t afford right now,” she says. “And, in this economic crisis, we just really need to focus on getting people into jobs.”
Martin says she criticizes any company that has become relaxed in their diversity and inclusion efforts, emphasizing that “we are not going to have a successful recovery unless we really center those who are being harmed the most by this crisis, and that means focusing on the needs of women, specifically women of color.”
She advises employers to take a close look at who is being laid off at their company and who is being brought back, making sure that “equity is part of the frame they are using to make these decisions.”
Otherwise, she says, if equity is not part of the mindset when making layoff and hiring decisions, then “this will be a moment that exacerbates and deepens a lot of the gender and racial wage gaps and wealth gaps that we have already struggled with.”