‘Decades of backward movement’ for women in the workforce during COVID-19

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“January 2020 was the second time ever that women held more jobs than men in the workforce—now, a year later, more than 2.3 million women [nationally] have dropped out of the workforce,” Cheryl Bergman, chief executive officer of the Michigan Women’s Commission told Michigan Advance. “Women were making great strides, and a year later we see decades of backward movement.”

She’s not kidding about the decades part. Women’s workforce participation is at its lowest level since 1988. Nationally, total employment for Black and Latina women has dropped by substantially more than for other groups.

In Michigan, women 20 years and older have had a 9.4% drop in employment during COVID-19, a stark contrast with a 2.5% drop for men. Women had a sharper drop in employment than men in April 2020 and their unemployment peaked at a higher rate than men in May 2020, but the continuing damage is the major, longer-term concern. 

According to the McKinsey study, mothers were more likely to say they were pressured to work more, burned out, and exhausted than fathers. (Those are three separate categories. Mothers were higher on all.) The same goes for senior-level women vs. senior-level men and Black women vs. Black men. At The Lily, Caroline Kitchener reports that women in academia are falling behind on research as they take on more child care than their male counterparts.

Policy coming out of the pandemic needs to address this. Child care is infrastructure, and needs to be treated as such—not just the buildings themselves but the workers to staff them—by treating it as a public good similar to K-12 education or fire departments or parks. We should be saying that both mothers and fathers depend on this, but the reality (of our sexist society) is that it affects women much more. The other reality is that women, who have for so long done so much unpaid or poorly paid care work, deserve better. The pandemic has showed us how extreme the problem is. It’s time to fix it.

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