Before the coronavirus pandemic, Eleanore Fernandez worked as an executive assistant at a company that catered healthy snacks for Silicon Valley offices.
The company “was about to ramp up and go bigger,” Fernandez said, but in March, all the offices in the area closed. No one was buying snacks. So the founder decided to lay off 400 employees, Fernandez included.
Now, she spends her days applying to new jobs while home-schooling her 12-year-old daughter, whose school closed a week before others in California because a student there tested positive for Covid-19. “I had to rush home to go get her,” Fernandez said.
“Ever since, it’s just crazy hectic,” she said.
Home-schooling is a challenge because her daughter gets bored and “wants to go out, like everyone,” Fernandez said. And even small errands have become so much more difficult now. Recently, she needed to go to a Dollar Store to get her daughter some supplies for a school project. She waited outside for 15 minutes because the store was limiting customers, then had to carry around a balloon so the staff could see where she was at all times.
“There’s a lot of thinking prior to what you have to do,” Fernandez said. “It’s very emotionally exhausting.”
Fernandez is stressed about keeping her family safe and about paying the bills. Her husband, who does audiovisual work for events, is out of work too, and although she filed for unemployment in March, she still hasn’t gotten any money. But, she says, “I’m trying to meditate and pray a lot,” and “be positive, too, for my family.”
In many ways, someone like Fernandez — a woman laid off from a job in the food industry, home-schooling a child while trying to make ends meet — is the face of the coronavirus economic crisis. Compare that to the stereotype of the last recession, in 2008: a man laid off from a manufacturing job, suddenly directionless, spending his days playing video games or hanging out with friends.
That stereotype was always an oversimplification of reality. But it’s true that while a majority of jobs lost in the Great Recession were held by men, this crisis has fallen hardest on women, and specifically women of color. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly 60 percent of the jobs lost in March, and 55 percent of those lost in April, were held by women. Nationwide, 13.9 percent of women are unemployed, compared with 11.6 percent of men. And though overall employment has improved somewhat since April, those gains largely haven’t been felt by black and Latina women, who face 16.5 percent and 19 percent unemployment, respectively.
At the end of 2019, women made up a majority of the workforce for the first time in a decade. But the pandemic has “chipped away at those gains,” Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Vox.
The fact that this crisis is disproportionately hurting women impacts the way the media and the public talk about it. Experts called the downturn that began in 2007 a “mancession,” and much media coverage focused on questions of how joblessness would affect men’s identities as providers. The recession even helped inspire journalist Hanna Rosin to write a much-talked-about Atlantic cover story — and subsequent book — called “The End of Men.”
Today, no one is talking about the “end of women.” In part, that’s because Americans still don’t view women’s jobs as core to who they are.
“Couples tend to see men’s unemployment as a problem,” Joanna Pepin, a sociologist who studies inequality in families, told Vox. But “couples reframe women’s unemployment as an acceptable way for women to take care of their family.”
That may be doubly true now that the pandemic has closed schools and day cares, leaving parents to provide full-time child care and home-schooling — a responsibility that already seems to be falling disproportionately to mothers.
But regardless of care responsibilities, women’s unemployment is a big problem for many families — especially the millions where women are primary breadwinners — and for women themselves. And without policy solutions like affordable child care, the new demands imposed by the pandemic could make it even harder for women to recover from this recession than it would be otherwise.
“Women are the economy,” Mason said. “We need to put supports and policies in place to make sure that not only can women enter the workforce, but they can stay there.”
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has impacted women of color the most
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered bars, restaurants, day care centers, and other businesses around the country, leading to levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. But not all workers have been affected equally. Certain sectors of the economy, like retail, hospitality, and child care, have been hit especially hard — and in many of those areas, the majority of workers are women.
For example, women make up 94 percent of child care workers, 73.2 percent of workers in clothing stores, and 51.2 percent of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry — all of which have been severely affected by the crisis.
And since women of color are disproportionately likely to work in the service sector, they’ve seen the biggest impact, Mason said. For example, women of color make up 61.2 percent of manicurists and pedicurists, 60.3 percent of maids and housekeepers, and 57.2 percent of skin care specialists, many of whom have seen their jobs evaporate thanks to Covid-19.
Even as some sectors of the economy have shown signs of bouncing back, with 2.5 million total jobs added in May, many women of color aren’t seeing the benefits. Unemployment for black women actually ticked up slightly in May while falling for other groups, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Meanwhile, Latina workers, the group most impacted by pandemic-related layoffs, continue to face record unemployment, as Alexia Fernández Campbell reports at the Center for Public Integrity.
Women of color already made lower wages than white men before the pandemic hit. While white women earn 79 cents for every dollar made by white men, black women make 62 cents, Native women make 57 cents, and Latina women make just 54 cents. Asian American women make 90 cents to white men’s dollar, but some subgroups make much less, as Jocelyn Frye writes at the Center for American Progress.
Moreover, women of color also experience gender and racial wealth gaps, as Frye notes. As of 2015, the median wealth for a single white man was $28,900. For a single white woman, it was $15,640. But the median single black woman had just $200 in wealth, while the median Latina woman had $100.
On top of these inequities, the jobs lost by women of color in the pandemic tended not just to pay low wages, but also to lack benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance, making workers in those jobs less able to weather any kind of health crisis. That means that women of color “were already economically vulnerable before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that,” Mason said.
It’s the reverse of what happened in the Great Recession, when men were more likely to lose their jobs
While the current economic crisis has had its biggest impact on service jobs that involve a lot of contact with customers, the Great Recession that began in 2007 disproportionately affected manufacturing jobs — which were more likely to be held by men. The result was that men’s employment fell by about 6 percent between December 2007 and June 2009, while women’s employment fell by just 2.4 percent.
This “mancession” (a term coined by economist Mark Perry) led to widespread fear not just about people’s ability to pay their bills but about whether men would lose their sense of purpose and whether masculinity itself was doomed.
“As the usual path to the middle class disappears, what’s emerging in its place is a nascent middle-class matriarchy,” in which women “pay the mortgage and the cable bills while the men try to find their place,” Rosin wrote in a 2012 New York Times Magazine story adapted from her book The End of Men.
Rosin spoke with men and women in Alexander City, Alabama, where the largest employer, the athletic-wear manufacturer Russell, had downsized dramatically in recent years. She painted a picture of men adrift, sometimes with little to do.
“The former Russell men are sometimes categorized by people in town as one of three types,” Rosin wrote: “the ‘transients,’ who drive about an hour to Montgomery for work and never make it home for dinner; the ‘domestics,’ who idle at the house during the day, looking for work; and the ‘gophers,’ who drive their wives to and from work, spending the hours in between hunting or fishing.”
The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has only been going on a few months, perhaps not long enough for the kind of cultural analysis Rosin was performing. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone talking about unemployed women trying “to find their place” — or hunting or fishing, for that matter.
In part, that’s because the pandemic hasn’t just devastated the economy — it’s also transformed family life, thanks to day care and school closures that make millions of parents newly responsible for their children 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In some cases, parents are sharing those new responsibilities equitably. Fernandez says her husband has been a stay-at-home dad in the past, and they’re splitting the work of handling their daughter’s schooling. “I’m lucky to have a husband who shares,” she said.
But not everyone is so lucky. In an April poll conducted by Morning Consult for the New York Times, 80 percent of women with children under 12 said they were spending more time than their partners on kids’ distance learning; just 45 percent of men said they were spending more time.
Child care isn’t the only added responsibility of the pandemic. Quarantine living may also increase the time people need to spend on food purchasing and preparation (since they have to contend with food shortages and recommendations to avoid shopping too frequently) and on cleaning (since they’re suddenly spending nearly all their time at home). And in the Morning Consult poll, 70 percent of women said they were doing all or most of the housework during lockdown, while just 21 percent of men said the same.
For heterosexual couples, the pandemic may be intensifying patterns that already existed, Pepin, the sociologist, said. In a survey of 1,060 opposite-sex parents in the US that she and colleagues conducted in late April, couples who split domestic labor somewhat equally before the pandemic moved even closer to parity, while those in which the woman already did more housework and child care had become even more unequal in their division of labor during the pandemic. “For moms who were already doing most of the domestic work, they’re doing even more of it,” Pepin said.
And that effect might be magnified if women lose their jobs. In general, women who leave the labor force tend to spend more time on child care and housework, Pepin said. Unemployed men, however, don’t increase their domestic work to the same degree.
In America, “men’s employment still continues to be prioritized,” Pepin said. “If women are not employed, many people will still talk about homemaking as an equally acceptable contribution to the family,” she explained. “But when men stay at home, that’s often framed as a problem.”
That means we may not see as much talk about women losing their identities in this recession. We probably won’t hear about a lot of unemployed women “idling around the house” — because more so than men, they’re often busy cooking, cleaning, or taking care of kids. And we may not hear about women left directionless, wondering what their purpose is — because many women still get the message, both from the media and their own families, that their purpose is at home, not at work.
Despite the persistence of this message, many women across income levels and industries do derive a sense of meaning from their work. Fernandez, for example, has worked since she was 16. “This is the first time in a long time where I’ve not had a job to define my role,” she said. “I’ve always been the working mom.”
On top of that, unemployment comes at a different cost for women than men. Women who lose their jobs and become economically dependent on a male partner may be in a risky position, Pepin said. “If a relationship ends, they’re more likely to be in poverty.”
Meanwhile, when women who are the primary breadwinners — something that’s disproportionately true for black and Latina women — lose their jobs, it is “devastating in a different way,” Mason said, because families lose income they need to live. But the pandemic has made it difficult for breadwinner women to take new jobs because “the care networks that they had pre-Covid, whether it’s family networks or a family day care center, those options have also disappeared,” she said.
Many women face the prospect of “having to choose between making a living and taking care of their families,” Mason said.
Without help from policymakers and employers, women can’t get back to work
That means the solutions needed to address this recession will be different from those needed in the last one. It’s not just about getting people back to work; it’s also about changing the division of labor in families and the available options for child care so that getting back to work is even an option for many women.
To shift social expectations of who does child care, it could help to start early. Research across countries shows that “when men take paternity leave early on, they’re more likely to stay involved in household labor and raising children throughout their life,” Pepin said. That means better access to paternity leave could shift the US toward more equitable gender roles over time.
It’s also possible that, at least in some cases, the pandemic could lead to greater gender equality. The crisis has “broken the barrier down between work and family for everybody, and that’s typically been an issue that women talk about a lot,” Pepin said. “We’ve hardly ever seen a time in the past where those competing time demands are affecting such a large swath of the public all at the same time. That may help women because it may be altering that stigma of employees needing to take time for child care.”
But to really address the inequalities in employment that the pandemic has laid bare, structural changes are necessary, experts say. Paid sick and family leave are crucial, Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, told Vox. In the service sector, “We often have women in these jobs facing, ‘Do I go to work sick or am I going to just be without income?’” she explained.
Meanwhile, women won’t be able to get back to work without affordable child care, which was out of reach for many even before the pandemic hit, Mason noted. “We have a responsibility not only at the federal level to make sure that families have high-quality child care, but I think employers have a role to play too.”
During World War II, factories needed female workers so badly that they set up onsite day care centers for their children, she said. It’s hard to imagine something like that today, when “we can’t even get federal maternity leave.” But support for child care and other policies that help women are good for everyone. “When you pay women more, when you give them adequate and decent child care, when they have access to maternity leave and fathers have access to paternity leave, those are not women’s issues, those are family issues, and those are issues that are good for the economy,” Mason said.
Fernandez, too, says affordable child care is important. She remembers the chunk of her paycheck that went to day care when her daughter was younger. “We have to all change the ways that the system works,” she said.
Right now, “women are really heroes at the backbone of a lot of families,” she continued. “Sometimes I feel like we take a lot of weight.”