Unequal Impact: Why Gender Matters in the Workplace

March 9, 2021
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Author: Glenn Hunter

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, early indications showed that women in the U.S. workforce would be impacted by the resulting economic downturn more than men. Today, one full year after the pandemic started, it’s clear that the imbalance was real and is continuing, with far more females than males dropping out of the labor force to date – especially mothers with children under the age of 18. The trend may force some talent acquisition professionals to consider rethinking their hiring strategies.

Lack of childcare options is one reason working mothers across industries have opted out of the labor force.

Last May, the female unemployment rate soared from 3.3% a year earlier to 14.3%, compared to 11.9% (up from 3.4%) for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While men slightly outnumbered women in the labor market prior to the pandemic, observers said the higher jobless rate for women in May was explained mainly by their greater participation in industries hit hardest by the pandemic, including leisure and hospitality, healthcare, retail, education, and childcare.

Now, data from LaborIQ® by ThinkWhy and the BLS is shedding new light on the troubling trend. Of the 3.88 million people who dropped out of the labor force between February 2020 and December 2020, women accounted for 2.14 million, while the number of men who dropped out was 1.74 million.

Related: Visible Signs of U.S. Economic Recovery Emerge

The higher figure for women can be attributed largely to mothers who have school-age children under 18, says Dr. Marianne Wanamaker, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tennessee and a ThinkWhy Executive Advisory Board member. What’s more, she says she expects to see “weakness in participation in this demographic” for months to come.

Prime-age employment weakness LaborIQ
Women with children under age 18 experienced the steepest declines in labor force participation.

“Mothers kind of held it together from March through August (2020) and figured out a way to homeschool their kids and also hold on to their jobs,” Wanamaker said during a February 24 LaborIQ webinar, "What’s Ahead: 2021 Job Market". “But in September, when those schools did not open, they gave up. So, for women whose youngest kid is age 5 to 9, 4% of that population has left the labor force entirely. That is a remarkably large drop-off in participation, and it’s going to take a while to unwind.

“I think it’s foolish to think we’re all going to be vaccinated in August (2021), and in September, we’re all going to go back to normal schooling schedules, and these women are going to jump right back into the labor market,” added Wanamaker. “I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s going to be a lot of schools that don’t open … and I think we’re going to have women who say, ‘It’s too risky. I just can’t commit to a job if I can’t depend on my kids’ school being opened.’”

According to The New York Times, the nation’s 13,000 public school districts have developed their own standards for opening during the pandemic, and as of January there was no official account of how many students were learning remotely versus in person.

Another participant in the webinar – Dr. Sam Chandan, associate dean of the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate and also a ThinkWhy Executive Advisory Board member – agreed with Wanamaker’s analysis. Chandan said that for “women in caregiver roles, mainly mothers with school-age children or caring for an elderly parent, that is draining their ability to re-engage in the labor force.”

Hiring Strategies May Have to Change

The pandemic recession has taken an especially heavy toll on younger women of color, according to the LaborIQ research. While the average U.S. unemployment rate in February 2021 was 6.6%, the jobless rate for Hispanic women ages 25 to 34 was 9.1% and a whopping 17.6% for Black women between 20 and 24. These numbers are not seasonally adjusted.

Unemployment Rate Disparity
Disparities in the unemployment rate exist based on gender, age and race/ethnicity.

“It’s not just Black women, but all women in the 20 to 24 age range are at the front end of child-bearing, and as anyone who’s had a young child knows, it’s just impossible to multi-task with a kid in that age range,” Wanamaker said. “So, some of what (we’re seeing in these statistics) is a reflection of those home responsibilities that aren’t going to get better, really, until we have a more robust education system.”

Another participant in the LaborIQ webinar, Jay Denton, vice president of business intelligence and chief innovation officer at ThinkWhy, said that, given the trend, some organizations may need to rethink their hiring approach in order to attract women back into the workforce. Companies are hearing that people “are having to do a lot of different things all at once – work and dishes and kids’ school, and all that’s happening at the same place at the same time now,” said Denton.

“So, looking at it strategically, (companies have) had these roles to fill, but it’s been hard. So, you might have to look at changing your strategy,” he went on. “How does that work? (Maybe the role becomes) a remote job, or the hours are different, or it’s part-time. It’s something to consider to bring some of these people back into the labor force, because some don’t see how today’s market makes sense for them.”

Advocates for workplace equity have been buoyed by provisions aimed at struggling women in the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which the president was expected to sign this week. Among other things, the plan would boost support for childcare providers and expand the child tax credit to $3,000 for children ages 6-17 and to $3,600 for children under 6. Said Vice President Kamala Harris, “The longer we wait to act, the harder it will be to bring those millions of women back into the workforce.”

LaborIQ by ThinkWhy reports, forecasts and advises on employment conditions and the impact to jobs, industries and businesses across all U.S. cities.