Working women are still being disproportionately hurt by the pandemic recession

Working women are still being disproportionately hurt by the pandemic recession
Ashley Testerman helps John Jolley resolve his unemployment claim at an unemployment event in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 15, 2020.Nick Oxford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
  • In December, the US economy lost a surprising 140,000 nonfarm payroll jobs, with women taking the worst of the losses.
  • Recovery will likely be uneven, and experts say it's key to provide resources for the women forced out of the workforce.
  • This includes paid childcare and paid sick leave, according to one expert Insider talked to.

In December 2020, the US lost 140,000 nonfarm payroll jobs, with women taking the worst of the losses.

Globally, a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that women and younger workers have seen the greatest employment losses throughout the pandemic. In 2020, women saw employment losses of 5%, while men's losses were at 3.9%

"The pandemic has created a perfect storm for working women, targeting the service sector industries where women are overrepresented while denying them access to paid leave and affordable child care. This is particularly true for Black and Latina women who are overrepresented in the job losses and are more likely to go hungry or face eviction," the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) said in a statement to Insider.

Women have already disproportionately felt the devastating effects of unemployment

The latest jobs report showed the pandemic's devastating impact on working women. Women lost a net 156,000 jobs and men gained a net 16,000 jobs, per an analysis of the most recent employment situation by the NWLC. That is, although men did lose jobs, the net number could be viewed as showing women made up all of the 140,000 jobs lost in December 2020 as noted by CNN's reporting.

And although the unemployment rate has declined from its peak last spring, it was still higher than before the pandemic across demographic groups. The following chart highlights the unemployment rate for three different racial groups and ethnicities for men and women:


From November to December, 154,000 Black women left the labor force, according to an analysis by the NWLC. The unemployment rates for Black and Latina women who are at least 20 years old were far higher than the 6.7% overall national unemployment rate for people who are at least 16 years old, coming in at 8.4% and 9.1% respectively. At the end of the year, Black men had the highest unemployment rate at 10.4% in December, followed by Hispanic or Latina women.

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The departure of women from the labor force - especially women of color - has been one alarming trend throughout the pandemic. And, with many of those women working in industries that have been particularly hard hit, those jobs may not be coming back anytime soon.

"There won't be a one for one recovery when stay at home orders are ... lifted or we have the pandemic under control," C. Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), told Insider. "For many women, especially women of color who worked in the service sector, in some of these most impacted sectors, they will have to enter new careers and professions altogether."

Overall, women make up a large share of service-providing industries, either around or above half of employment in several of these industries. Some of these sectors have been greatly damaged by the pandemic, such as the leisure and hospitality industry. The following chart highlights the share of women in various industries according to the most recent jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:


According to the latest monthly release, women make up a large share of employees in the education and health services sector. That sector includes jobs in schools and hospitals, which have been severely impacted by the pandemic, according to Insider's previous reporting on changes in US teacher employment and Insider's reporting in April on job cuts and furloughs in hospitals. Women also made up 53.1% of employment in the leisure and hospitality industry, one of the hardest-hit sectors throughout the pandemic.

For instance, the National Women's Law Center noted in its recent analysis that "the leisure and hospitality sector lost 498,000 jobs in December. Women accounted for 56.6% of these job losses." Most of this December loss was within the industry was in food services and drinking places, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What needs to be done to see unemployment recovery

Mason said that measures like paid childcare, funding for small businesses and job creation, paid sick leave, and education for new industries are crucial steps for supporting the women impacted by unemployment.

"There are going to be some women who are not able to immediately go back to work," she said. For those women and their families, the new administration should be "making sure they have the economic support they need so that they don't fall further into economic despair."

The ILO report notes that, of those facing employment losses, women were more likely to become "inactive," meaning that they paused looking for work or dropped out of the labor force completely. That may be in part to shuttering (and expensive) childcare options, as 1 million married women lost their jobs during back to school season.


In terms of recovery, the ILO report recommends bolstering aid and support for the hardest-hit workers and sectors.

And Mason is optimistic about the Biden administration and their priorities when it comes to helping the millions of unemployed women. But the pandemic has still left millions of workers - especially women of color - out of work, and without relief.

"I think the most important thing to know is that this isn't political. What's happening - the pandemic, the economic downturn - translates into hardship for families across the country," Mason said. "We've seen long food lines, people struggling with housing insecurity, so much uncertainty, while those at the top have been fighting a political battle."