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Over two million women exited the workforce in 2020. Where do we go from here?

The pandemic-induced economic downturn is being called a "shecession" because of its disproportionate impact on women.

Over two million women exited the workforce in 2020. Where do we go from here?
Image Source: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Distributes Food In Areas Hard-Hit By COVID-19. NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 27 (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Women are the greatest victims of the ongoing public health crisis. While unemployment rates in the United States soared, a disproportionate number of women left the workforce—many, for good. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, labor force participation rates were lower for women than for men: the rate for men is around 2.6 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level, whereas the participation rate for women is four percentage points lower. Now, the private sector must first recognize the gendered impact of the pandemic and second, devise methods to bring American women back into the workforce, lest we lose much of the progress we made towards gender equity in the workplace, Good Morning America reports.


Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and a mom of two, saw how this played out in her own life. "I saw the struggle play out in their living rooms and in my living room where we're trying to not dampen our dreams, but we have to log our kids onto Zoom at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock," she shared. "We're doing laundry in between calls. We're making breakfast, lunch and dinner. We are constantly caretaking and mothering. We're teachers, we're counselors, we're nurses, we're cleaners, we're nannies, and no one ever asked us. It wasn't even a choice."


Through her lived experiences, Saujani has pointed out one of the several factors affecting women's productivity. Even pre-pandemic, women, and mothers particularly, performed far more domestic work than men. A study by American Progress states, mothers are more than twice as likely to also do housework on days when they work for pay—38.7 percent compared with 15.8 percent of men. In addition to this, they also spend significantly more time when doing so—1.17 hours versus 0.90 hours for men. This work is, by and large, unpaid and invisible. Saujani affirmed, "I mean that literally, that our labor has no economic value whatsoever."


Post-pandemic, the gendered divide in unpaid domestic work only increased, limiting the amount of time women could spend performing paid, productive work. In the month of November 2020 alone, 10,000 women aged 20 and over left the labor force. These women joined the two million women who have left the labor force since February 2020. Since then, women have lost over 5 million net jobs, accounting for almost 54 percent of overall net job losses since the public health crisis first began. Looking ahead, it is unlikely that women will be able to regain employment as fast as men will.


Jasmine Tucker, director of research for the NWLC, stated, "The Great Recession [of 2008] was really opposite from this recession in that it was a production recession and we saw a lot of men's jobs lost, but the jobs came back really quickly. This recession, women have borne the brunt and I think some of those jobs are permanently lost. We're still in a real crisis here." Of the 12.1 million jobs women lost between February and April, more than 2 in 5 are yet to return. With this in mind, it is time to institute greater support for women in the workforce. Saujani has suggested a "Marshall Plan for Moms." This program, led by a "caregiving czar," would provide a means-tested $2,400 monthly payment to moms in addition to other workplace benefits such as parental leave, affordable child care, and pay equity.


"As I thought about this as a CEO and a mom, it was clear to me that my life and the lives of women I work with and women I know weren't going to change when a vaccine showed up or when schools reopened," she explained. "It made me realize, we just don't value things that we get for free. So the only way to value our worth, the only way to value the worth of moms, is to literally put a value on that so that when policymakers are making this decision of what to do, they calculate the cost of it." C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, is a fan of this idea and hopes to it one step further, to the national level: "The dream for me would be a national child care infrastructure that goes from zero to 12 and is not means-tested, so regardless of your job or your occupation, you have the support. And that no family spends more than seven to 10 percent of their income on care." More flexible work arrangements could also prove beneficial, especially as certain regions continue to shelter in place.


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