Unlike past recessions, pandemic hit women hardest

April 25, 2021

The pandemic-fueled recession hit women harder than men when it comes to unemployment worldwide. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Women suffered greater adverse employment effects than male counterparts during the COVID-19 recession across various industries and occupations, contrary to recessions of the past, according to new research that suggests the pandemic may have reversed decades of progress made toward gender equality.

During previous, more typical business-cycle downturns, the labor supply of men tended to decrease more than the labor supply of women, in part because of differences in cyclical volatility between industries that feature higher female versus male employment shares. But in a working paper published April 5 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that the "shecession" of 2020 had a disproportionately adverse impact on women's employment in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom, due, in part, to complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Female essential workers who were unable to telecommute suffered worse employment impacts, according to the study, but flexible work options are not a one-size-fits-all solution: Mothers working remotely, in particular, reported greater difficulty in balancing work tasks and household responsibilities, including child care.

Using microdata from several national labor-force surveys, researchers found that several countries in the study exhibited similar declines in women's employment during the COVID-19 recession. Contrary to previous recessions, the labor supply of women, as measured by employment, fell relative to that of men in 18 of 28 countries; measured by hours worked, the labor supply of women fell in 19 of 28 countries. In the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K., a small gender gap was found in changes in both employment and hours worked by women; in Canada, Germany and the U.S., researchers noted a more substantial gender gap in hours worked by survey respondents. 

A large gender gap in terms of employment changes was also observed in the U.S., but not in Germany. The study suggests that more generous social-policy responses in Germany, such as employment-protection policies and furlough provisions, were instrumental in protecting women's labor-market participation during the crisis.

Sena Coskun, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim and a co-author of the paper, said she believes the pandemic "shecession" was important to study for several reasons. 

"One [factor] is that some families lose intrahousehold insurance when women are hit harder; second is that these negative effects on labor-market outcomes of women might stay for some time, by decreasing their labor-market attachment and/or through human-capital depreciation," Coskun told The Academic Times. "And it might take a long time for women to recover and achieve the pre-COVID levels of gender equality, which already took decades to achieve."

Researchers found that parenthood, in particular, worsened observed gender gaps. A gender gap of 1.6 and 6.6 percentage points for employment and hours worked, respectively, was noted for nonparents in the United States, compared with larger corresponding gaps of 4.2 and 17.9 percentage points for parents of school-age children.

Single mothers experienced a more pronounced decline in both hours worked and employment in the U.S., Canada and Spain, although researchers noted that the type of positions held by single mothers also mattered; controlling for industry and occupation diminished the observed gender gap. Larger gender gaps in the reported labor supply of less-educated workers were seen in Canada and the U.S., while the opposite was reported in Spain and the U.K., where college-educated parents of school-age children reported fewer hours worked than less-educated parents.

Another reason working women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic recession is its specific labor-market distribution, researchers said, which heavily strained service sectors with larger shares of employed women. In the United States, for example, the overall gender gap declined by 43% in terms of employment and 33% in terms of hours worked after controlling for work type.

However, the observed gender gap cannot be wholly explained by any of the aforementioned factors. In countries where Coskun and her co-authors noted statistically significant overall gender gaps resulting from the pandemic's labor-market impact, a "substantial and statistically significant" gender gap is still observed among workers without children and after controlling for industry and occupation effects.

"We do find that both industry/occupations and existence of children are very important in explaining the gender gap," Coskun said. "But there is still a remaining portion of the gender gap that we cannot explain by either of these hypotheses. It might be due to increased elderly care, increased need for home production or older women to take the responsibility [for child care] in multigenerational families, or some voluntary reduction of work to decrease infection risk."

In an article published in March, consulting firm McKinsey & Company also highlighted the plight of working mothers struggling to balance professional duties with child care and household obligations during COVID-19 lockdowns. According to the article, one in four women considered leaving the labor market entirely or taking a less-demanding role as a result of pandemic-related challenges, compared with just one in five men. Working mothers of children under 10 years old were also 10 percentage points more likely to consider leaving the workforce. The pandemic was also found to have had a significant adverse impact on the professional decisions of Black women and women holding senior executive roles.

Coskun herself is no stranger to the stress experienced by working mothers around the world during COVID-19. 

"I had my second child right before the pandemic started, and as a family, we are left with one newborn and 5-year-old during the lockdown," she said. "We were lucky that we could telecommute and had flexible work hours, but we could not risk ourselves with a newborn by hiring a nanny who might increase our infection risk." 

Still, Coskun added that she "cannot imagine how the pandemic put both physical and psychological pressure on working mothers who cannot afford to work flexibly."

Telecommuting opportunities are often heralded as a potential solution to the inequitable work-life demands placed on working women during the pandemic. According to a 2021 report published by the International Labour Organization, the benefits of remote work have enabled businesses to continue operating in uncertain times, provided unemployed people in both developing and developed economies access to new income opportunities, and resulted in an increase in e-commerce, e-services and freelancing work.

As with any new business model or technology, though, there are potential downsides to consider. Processes can now be managed using algorithms, the ILO report said, and companies' investments in human capital might look very different in the years ahead. Digital workers are also sometimes vulnerable to "working poverty," struggling to assemble a reliable source of income from intermittent freelance, consultancy and part-time assignments. 

Especially dangerous during a global pandemic is the fact that some remote positions do not guarantee adequate access to social protection, such as health care and unemployment insurance. This can be further complicated by a diminished ability to pursue accountability and retribution from employers through traditional collective-bargaining processes, according to the ILO.

Coskun and her co-authors found evidence to support the vital role of telecommuting in protecting women's participation in the labor market during economic uncertainty: The COVID-19 pandemic's impact on employment gender gaps arose almost entirely among so-called essential workers, or those for whom remote work had not been possible. However, Coskun and her colleagues also cautioned against the assumption that remote opportunities will serve as a magical solution to gender inequality in the labor market. Women working from home reported greater reductions in productivity than their male counterparts, the researchers explained, perhaps because the women also reported spending more work time addressing child care duties compared with men.

McKinsey, in its article, predicted that under a "gender-regressive, 'do nothing' scenario — which assumes that the higher negative impact of COVID-19 on women remains unaddressed," global gross domestic product will plummet by $1 trillion by 2030, compared with a situation where men and women more equitably share the pandemic's employment-related costs.

If some aspects of the current remote work environment are resistant to change following the pandemic, Coskun said it's critical to foster a better understanding of the pandemic's long-term costs in order to address the observed gender gap. 

"One question we would like to pursue is analyzing the recovery: Which countries are recovering faster, what kind of jobs are healing faster and who is benefiting the most from the recovery?" she said. "Also, even after recovery, some effects will [be] likely to stay [long term]; are some women detached from the labor market, and how long does it last?"

The working paper, "From mancession to shecession: Women's employment in regular and pandemic recessions," published on April 5 by the National Bureau for Economic Research, was authored by Titan Alon, University of California, San Diego; Sena Coskun, David Koll and Michèle Tertilt, University of Mannheim; and Matthias Doepke, Northwestern University.

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