The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Participation in the Labor Force

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the female labor force participation rate has suffered due to the high volume of women who have left the workforce. Though there are many other contributing factors, research posed that those responsible for the most damage are the concentration of women in certain industries, and the need to care for children who are taking part in online learning.

Women are a crucial part of the American workforce, making up just over 50% of the current labor force, meaning a decent chunk of our GDP and country-wide productivity can be attributed to women and their workforce contribution. It is becoming increasingly accepted for women to be as career oriented as men and as such 57% of women above the age of 20 are members of the civilian work force. In general, as cited in a UN study, when women are active in the labor force economies improve. By fostering women’s participation in the labor force, productivity is improved, diversification is increased, and income equality is more regularly addressed.

In fact, according to the same study, increasing the female employment rates in OECD countries to match that of Sweden, could boost GDP by over $6 trillion. This is a simple overview of why it is important to maintain an awareness of female workers.

Not surprisingly, the unemployment rate for women is higher than it was at this time last year. Although the rate is on the decline now as adjustments are being made in response to COVID, female unemployment of those over 20 is just over 3% higher than it was last October. More important to recognize, is the fact that women have been hit harder by the pandemic than men have. In the first few months of the pandemic, women lost 2.5 million more jobs than men did.

In September alone over 850,000 women left the workforce. That means women have been leaving employment at a rate 4 times that of men.

Unlike previous recessions in which construction and manufacturing have taken a hit, COVID caused issues in industries that have a high concentration of women. According to multiple sources including the BLS the five industries that have been most impacted by the pandemic in terms of employment changes are, travel and transportation, leisure and hospitality, food services, education, and health services, and they all happen to hold a high concentration of female workers. About 33% of women who work are employed within the top 10 female positions, at least 7 of which fall within these industries. With this in mind, it makes sense that female employment has suffered more than men.

Because of concerns for safety many schools took the online learning route leading to about 1.5 billion children learning outside of a classroom setting worldwide. This presents a unique challenge for parents who are used to working while their kids are at school. About 76% of the U.S. workforce is made up of those with children ages 6 – 17 who are now learning remotely. This means that a significant portion of the workforce have been impacted by school closures.

This is important to understand in respect to COVIDs impact on women because, statistically it is more likely for mothers to stay home with or care for their children. In households with two parents the mother usually contributes about 6 more hours of childcare per week than the father. It is therefore no surprise that it has largely been women that have stayed home during this time of online schooling. In the US, between February and September, participation for mothers declined by 3.3 percentage points, adjusting for normal seasonal variations. For fathers, it declined by 1.3 percentage points. That’s the equivalent of 900,000 fewer mothers and 300,000 fewer fathers in the work force over the last seven months

With a noticeable decline of female workers, many families are facing the cost of lost wages and lower incomes. Without going into too much detail, childcare is less accessible at the moment because of the pandemic so, for the 21% of children in the United States that live in a household run by a single mother, the need for a parent at home to oversee online learning, is detrimental to their earning capacity. On a larger scale, the productivity loss from women exiting employment is also a concern. It is estimated that the country could see a loss of $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity just from mothers leaving the labor force or reducing their hours to care for their children. It is also contributing heavily to the high unemployment numbers that the US has been seeing since March.

There is no simple solution to this trend. In order to juggle online schooling and work more easily it would be beneficial for there to be an improvement in childcare access or paid leave opportunities. There seems to be a need for support of paid leave for workers to protect households from loss of wages. Whether this be through Congressional support or the employer recognition of the burdens that the pandemic has placed on parents. Their cooperation in offering additional benefits to parents or simply providing more flexibility to workers could be enough to encourage women to at least remain in the workforce as opposed to dropping out entirely. Combating this trend through childcare is no easier because of the discrepancy between the current demand and supply levels in that industry. An increase in the funding of childcare providers would help them stay open and provide needed services so that parents could remain in the labor force. However, that is an oversimplified solution considering the broader restructuring that the childcare industry may need as a result of this pandemic.

To summarize, women are leaving the workforce at a higher rate than men, because of the industries that have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and the need for childcare during this time of online education. As a result, families are facing lost wages and the US is facing a loss of productivity and high unemployment. To improve the situation, it may be prudent to consider paid family leave and improvement of childcare options, however, such solutions would not be simple ones.