COVID-19 Is Driving Women Out of the Workforce

by Maurie Backman | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on Sept. 9, 2020

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Women struggled career-wise before the pandemic. Now, things have gotten exponentially worse.

Women have long struggled for equal treatment in the workplace. Women's wages still lag behind those of their male counterparts, and in 2018, females' median earnings were just 81% of men's. Now, the COVID-19 crisis is making the problem even worse.

Women are hurting in the coronavirus economy

The COVID-19 crisis has spurred an unemployment crisis unlike any other. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the pandemic, but not everyone is out of work because employers terminated their positions. Rather, 20% of working-age adults are unemployed because they have no child care, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve. Among those who aren't working, women are almost three times more likely than men to stay home and look after their kids.

A lack of available jobs is also hurting women. The service sector has been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic, and women are more likely than men to hold those jobs. The unemployment rate for women over age 20 was 11.1% in July, compared to just 9.2% for men. While it's easy to chalk these numbers up to temporary circumstances, the reality is that women might struggle to regain their footing once the pandemic ends.

Women can't afford this hit

The fact that women continue to earn less than men means they're more likely to fall behind on general savings as well as retirement savings.

But right now, a lot of women's hands are tied. Those who can't work remotely may have to take time out of the workforce to watch their children and guide them in virtual learning -- a setup many school districts have adopted to kick off the 2020–2021 academic year. While it may be possible to find child care in creative ways -- signing up for learning pods, or hiring sitters -- in some cases, that's too cost-prohibitive to consider. Or, to put it another way, some women may be better off quitting their jobs and watching their children, rather than spending the bulk of their earnings -- or even more than their earnings -- on child care.

To be clear, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act may provide some relief for out-of-work women, but it's only temporary, and it's not a lot. Specifically, all employees are entitled to up to two weeks or 80 hours of paid sick leave at two-thirds of their regular pay rate if they can't work due to a lack of child care. On top of that, there's an additional 10 weeks of expanded leave available, which also pays out at two-thirds of workers' regular pay rate for those without child care. All told, women who take time away from their jobs to look after their children can receive a portion of up to 12 weeks of earnings. But some women exhausted their paid leave back in the spring, and are now looking at weeks without a paycheck (not counting whatever unemployment benefits they may be entitled to).

It's not just the temporary hit on earnings that could hurt women. It's the long-term effect. Many women struggle to get hired after taking time off to have children, and those who take a break from their careers to care for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic risk a similar fate -- especially at a time when jobs aren't abundant.

Women need to protect themselves

If you're a woman who's been forced to take an unwanted career break due to a lack of child care (or lack of an available job), the best thing you can do for yourself is keep your skills current and continue to network. Securing part-time work could also benefit you not just financially, but career-wise.

If, for example, you're a hospitality specialist who's out of work, you can sign up to write for a hotel or customer service blog on the side. You might only end up working a few hours a week and the pay may be negligible, but this way, there's not such a gap on your resume.

If you can't find paid work on the side, try volunteering. If you're temporarily taking a break from your marketing agency to stay home with your kids, offer free marketing services to a couple of struggling local businesses.

It's not just women who are hurting career-wise right now, but the gender pay gap puts women at more of a disadvantage than men, generally speaking. As a result, women may end up feeling the effects of the COVID-19 crisis for months, even years, after it ends. The more you do to protect yourself while you're out of work, the greater your chances of picking up where you left off without taking several steps backward.

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