How COVID-19 worsened gender inequality in the U.S. workforce

The pandemic has left millions of people across the United States unemployed. But survey data show that women have been particularly hard-hit, researchers report in the August Socius. Those gender disparities largely persisted even when the researchers zoomed in on households where men and women both held jobs that could be completed at home.

“Life got harder for everybody, but it got a lot harder for women than it did for men,” says William Scarborough, a sociologist at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Scarborough and colleagues compared U.S. Census Bureau surveys on labor market trends for married heterosexual couples from February and April, the months just before and after stay-at-home orders began. While unemployment increased for all groups, women with no kids were the hardest hit, with unemployment increasing from 2 percent in February to 13.6 percent in April. Comparatively, men with no kids saw unemployment rise from 2.2 percent to 9.5 percent.

Among women with children ages 1 to 12, unemployment increased from about 2 to 3 percent in February to about 12 to 13 percent in April — an increase of 8.9 to 11 percentage points. For men with children in that age range, unemployment rose to between 9 and 10 percent in April, up 7.3 percentage points.

And almost 250,000 more mothers than fathers with children in this age range left the workforce altogether and did not seek new jobs, the researchers estimate.

Disparities persisted even when both parents of young children worked in jobs that allowed telecommuting, with mothers reducing their hours more than fathers.  

Women have been walloped for several reasons, Scarborough says. The U.S. workforce is heavily segregated by sex — women are concentrated in service and care jobs requiring face-to-face contact. And with daycare and school closures, mothers have shouldered more childcare and homeschooling responsibilities than fathers.

Women’s economic pain from the pandemic could last a lifetime through lost earnings and less potential for job advancement, Scarborough says.

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