The Pandemic Worsened Inequities for Working Women. What Now?

April 14, 2021

This 22-minute podcast was released April 14, 2021.

Ana Hernández Kent, senior researcher, Institute for Economic Equity; and Meredith Covington, manager, Supervisory Policy and Risk Analysis.

“All this data that we've seen in these groups that have been disproportionately hit, it's really just been COVID highlighting and exacerbating existing inequities,” says Ana Hernández Kent, senior researcher at the St. Louis Fed’s Institute for Economic Equity. She joins Meredith Covington, manager of Supervisory Policy and Risk Analysis, also of the St. Louis Fed. They talk with Christine Smith, communications specialist, about how the “she-cession” is disproportionately affecting women of color and sparking conversations about child care.



Christine Smith: Welcome to Timely Topics, a podcast series by the St. Louis Fed. I'm Christine Smith, your host for this episode, and with me today are Meredith Covington, who serves as a supervision policy research and analysis manager, along with Ana Hernández Kent, who is a senior researcher with our Institute for Economic Equity.

So welcome, Meredith and Ana.

Meredith Covington: Thanks so much, Christine.

Ana Hernández Kent: Thanks for having us.

Smith: So in December of 2020 you published an analysis that was called "The She‑Cession Persists, Especially for Women of Color." Before we dig into the financial work and life challenges for women, especially women of color, that they faced in the pandemic, let's talk a little bit about the first part of that title.

Meredith, why has the COVID‑19 recession been termed a "she‑cession"?

Covington: In 2020, Dr. Nicole Mason is the one who actually dubbed the term "she‑cession." And she is the head of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

She did so for the following reasons. The first is that unlike previous recessions that the United States has experienced, this recession has disproportionately affected women. In past recessions, men have largely been the group that have been most affected because of the types of work that men are overrepresented in. So, like, construction, hard labor.

This recession is different because unlike past recessions, this one was not caused by any collapse of the financial system. This was caused because of a pandemic. Different from men, women tend to comprise industries that are seen as more close contact professions. So ones like education, healthcare, any service‑oriented professions. So the pandemic made it very difficult for these women to be able to keep jobs in those industries.

The second part to that is when women either lost their jobs or reduced their hours or chose to leave the labor force is that they were then bearing a much larger share of housework and care-giving responsibilities. So even though they may have reduced their hours or made this decision to exit the labor force, they then were inheriting new responsibilities at home, whether taking care of children that were now doing virtual schooling or taking care of other family members, elderly parents. For those two reasons, really, this push of job losses combined with these increased care-giving responsibilities at home is why it's created this recession that women have been more greatly affected.

Hernández Kent: That was a great summary, Meredith. I would just add that that burden, that disproportionate burden of care and of domestic responsibilities it's not something new. Right? But it is affecting women, both those who, as you said, either lost their jobs or chose to leave the labor force, but also those who kept their jobs–were fortunate enough to keep their jobs, whether or not that was in-person essential work or work from home.

Smith: So it sounds like there are many dimensions to this. And I know we're going to talk a little bit about care giving a bit later on.

To start off with, a lot of headlines have been generated around this regarding women and women's unemployment, especially in the earlier months of the pandemic. So, Ana, I'm wondering if you can talk about that indicator that tends to grab attention, which is the unemployment rate that's put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How do male and female unemployment rates typically track? And then what happened in the early months of the pandemic?

Hernández Kent: Yeah, thank you. So men and women typically tend to track each other pretty closely in terms of the unemployment rate. Going back a couple years, you know, that rate is usually within a tenth of a percentage point, so fairly closely, with some exceptions to that, of course; but, what we saw with the beginning of the COVID‑19 recession was that women, their rate jumped much more than men's did. They both, of course, skyrocketed, but women's did more so than men. It was a little over 16 percent versus about 13.6 percent for men. So that gap grew considerably there in April, and it remained there many months after that, that there remained a gap where women's unemployment was elevated for many of the reasons that Meredith mentioned.

Part of the reason was just the chaos that was going around at the beginning of this. Right? Like Meredith mentioned, the industries that women tend to be employed in. Leisure and hospitality in April had an unemployment rate of 40 percent. I mean, that is just unheard of. You know, that is cause for a lot of concern and panic. And women were bearing the brunt of a lot of that unemployment.

Smith: So, Ana, you were speaking about unemployment data at the onset of the pandemic. Looking at more recent data, which as of the time that we're speaking, was for February of 2021, I read that it showed unemployment for women and men, it's pretty even now, around 6 percent. And I know that we saw recent headlines based on Census Bureau data that indicated working moms have largely rebounded relative to fathers in terms of pre‑pandemic patterns.

What's not captured in those numbers that still may be concerning?

Hernández Kent: Yeah, so I'm glad we're talking about this because there is a lot that's not captured in those unemployment numbers that are dominating some of the headlines. Jerome Powell was talking about this earlier. In February he said that the official unemployment rate is really undercutting the economic impact, and that's because the unemployment rate is looking at people that are employed and in the labor force and people that are unemployed, but it's not counting those people that aren't actively looking for work, so people that have for whatever reason dropped out of the labor force. And as Meredith was saying earlier, a lot of women–men as well–but a lot of women have dropped out of the labor force entirely. They're no longer looking for work. So they're not being captured in those unemployment numbers.

And, yes, the numbers for men and women are largely very similar now, just like they were pre‑pandemic, in terms of the gap being closed or very close to closed, but I'm still concerned about them because both for men and for women the unemployment rate is still elevated, meaning that they're not getting jobs. And even for those that are getting jobs, the question remains: What types of jobs are they getting? Are they of the same quality, high quality as before?

The other thing I'll add is that the unemployment rate for mothers is actually still higher than for fathers. So those headlines from Census Bureau data aren't capturing unemployment rates either. And as I was saying before, many women have dropped out entirely. A big part of that, especially for mothers and mothers of young kids, is that child care issue that Meredith was talking about earlier. So mothers are more likely than fathers to cite child care issues as reasons that they've pulled back from the labor force. This has implications because it's not just going to hurt them in their careers potentially but also companies that are looking to have women in more senior positions.

Smith: Thanks, Ana. So it sounds like this is, multifaceted. It's beyond just looking at an unemployment number. You spoke about labor force participation as well.

Meredith, there's another way that this is multifaceted. You and Ana went beyond just saying women, right, to look at how certain demographic groups of women experienced proportionately greater impacts such as job loss and then continued to experience that fallout well into the end of last year. I'm wondering, Meredith, if you could talk about the groups that you looked at, what you found, and maybe why certain women felt the jobs hit so much harder.

Covington: Right. There was something really stark that came out at the end of last year in December 2020. It was when the BLS data came out. It was the Institute for Women's Policy Research that had first done an analysis on it. They noted that of all the jobs that were lost that month, they were all by women. All of the job losses were for women, and they were almost entirely Black and Latina women. It was 154,000 Black women dropped out of the labor force entirely in that month.

So we are seeing this very disproportionate effect on certain demographic groups of women. So we know that Latinas have experienced some of the worst outcomes in the recession. They've had some of the highest unemployment of any group during the recession. And this is largely due because they have been overrepresented in the leisure and hospitality industries and in education and health service industries. That has been consistent with what we've seen.

We also know that the scene has really been the same with Black women, and that they've also seen high unemployment rates and signs of really a stagnant recovery. They are two industries with significant job losses. So, like, education, healthcare. And the unemployment rate for these Latina and Black women has remained high. So to Ana's point, if you were to disaggregate the numbers a little bit, it's not just the overall unemployment rate or the overall labor force participation rate that you should be looking at, but how is this affecting specific groups of people.

Latina, Black, and Asian women all have much higher unemployment rates than white women. Claudia Goldin, who is a labor economist at Harvard, recently in some of her research said more than parental status or gender, education level has been the most decisive in who has lost jobs during the pandemic.

If you look at just in dual‑parent households and single‑parent households, if you have a college education, there is a greater likelihood that one person in the household would be able to forego an income and stay home. So the unemployment rates for men and women with college degrees has actually in looking at women specifically, it's actually decreased but at the level that is not proportionate to men's because they have been staying home to deal with domestic labor and virtual schooling. So those are kind of just some of the differences that we've picked up in our own analysis.

Ana, I'm sure you could speak more to some of the differences that we're seeing.

Hernández Kent: Well, I'll just add that all this data that we've seen in these groups that have been disproportionately hit, it's really just been COVID highlighting and exacerbating existing inequities. It's not creating them. So what we're seeing is that for many of these groups, the BIPOC women, Black, Hispanic women, younger adults, people with less than a bachelor's degree, as you were saying, Meredith, they are the ones that have been disproportionately hit, but they're also the ones with less cushion initially, fewer assets, less wealth to fall back on in the first place too. So in that sense it certainly has been detrimental economically speaking.

Smith: Thanks for answering that, Meredith and Ana.

I'm wondering if we can talk a bit more now about care-giving responsibilities. As you mentioned in relation to labor force participation, you know, that's the question: Will women reenter the workforce who have left? Meredith, can you tell our audience what you found when it came to who is shouldering the responsibility of caring for others, whether that's financially or otherwise?

Covington: So we know when it comes to shouldering the responsibility of care, it is largely falling to women. Prime working‑age women, so women between the ages of 25 and 54, were more likely to be caring for others financially than men. They were also more likely to have minor children living with them than men. And they were more likely to provide child care during standard working hours.

Some new research that's come out was also pretty interesting showing that in states where children received only remote instruction during the pandemic, mothers' labor force participation rate has been lower than those where children attended school in person. It's the same point that we're making; it's just, being said in a different way when you're comparing states that had put restrictions in place for in‑person schooling and then seeing how that had a direct effect on women in their labor force participation.

Also, we know that in terms of care-giving responsibilities much falls back to Black and Hispanic women, that they are taking on more responsibility as caregivers. Half of Black households with minor children are led by single women, and those women are often juggling child care and virtual schooling with their own work. Again, women are really bearing the brunt of a lot of the work that is done at home, but we know that it's hitting Black and Latina women much harder than it is for white women.

Smith: Meredith, you mentioned earlier that Chair Powell was asked about labor force impacts on women and about child care back in February in his testimony before the Senate. Of course the Federal Reserve itself is not in that kind of policy making arena, but specific policies aside, how might this conversation be informed by the research that you and Ana and others here at the St. Louis Fed are putting out?

Covington: So I'm glad that Chair Powell did address what the labor force impacts are on women and especially in regards to child care, because while not all women have children, the share of the population that does, child care remains a really important and large issue. There's quite a bit of research on the effects of quality, affordable, accessible child care and the positive effect that it's had on not just children, but on working mothers and the economy overall.

And we also know that through some recent research that child care also helps to really enable racial and gender equity among working women. While there are a number of policies that have been introduced over the years, all of this has been the short‑term solution, I would say Band‑Aids for a much larger problem.

You know, knowing that we don't have a solid child care infrastructure, you don't necessarily have these workplace protections or benefits in place for a lot of the women and men that have lost their jobs. What does this look like, going forward? Because, unemployment assistance does not really replace the opportunity for upward mobility. Leaving the labor market, especially for women, and even if a woman were to rejoin, it lowers a worker's earnings trajectory; thereby, really making it difficult for her family to continue the path of economic mobility.

In terms of stating specific policies, which is something that the Fed doesn't do, we can say that what is needed here is a really solid care infrastructure. And having, you know, strong workplace protections in place, I think that is reasonable to say given that one of the Fed's mandates is to maximize employment, right, we want to keep as many people in the labor force as possible. We need to look at what are the drivers and what are the causes behind women, why are they leaving the labor force, and what are some things that we could do to mitigate those negative effects?

Hernández Kent: And let me just add I want to bring into the conversation something that we haven't discussed yet, which is preexisting gender dynamics. So we know that there's a gender wealth gap. There's a gender wage gap as well. And that, to Meredith's point about the more recent research and finding women staying in the workplace if their children are able to in‑person go to school versus not, part of the reason if their children are at home and they need to supervise that virtual learning, if one of the parents in a two‑parent household is going to be pulling back from work with reduced hours or even quitting that job willingly, who's it going to be? Probably the person who makes less money. Right? Which in this country tends–and all countries, actually-- tends to be women. So that gender wage gap is playing a role in this discussion as well.

I'll just add one more thing, which is that a lot of the work that we've been talking about women doing, more shouldering that burden more so than men, that invisible unpaid work, if that were to be paid even at the minimum wage, there's research that shows that that would be a huge industry, $1.5 trillion some estimates or $2 trillion even if that was just minimum wage work just because of the long hours that women are putting in compared to men.

Smith: Thanks for bringing that up, Ana. You and your team at the Institute for Economic Equity has taken an extensive look over the years related to wealth gaps and wealth inequality in the United States. You recently published a piece on the gender wealth gap. Can you describe a bit more about how that can impact someone in their adult life, but also it carries on over multigenerational impacts?

Hernández Kent: So it is difficult to look at something like the gender wealth gap because wealth is shared at the family level. So in a coupled household, it can be difficult to say, well, this wealth should be attributed to the male or the female, but we've done some research and have some innovative methods to be able to look at that.

The bottom line is there is a gender wealth gap. And even if you control for things like working part‑time versus full‑time, marital status, race and ethnicity, inheritances, home ownership–basically anything that you can throw in the model, we threw in the model–and that gender wealth gap still remains and remains significant.

And what that means to me is that we're not just talking about it affecting women here. You know, as Meredith was saying, many women, particularly Black women, are the primary or single mother of their household, the single person in their household. And so what that means is that it's going to be affecting the next generation as well if these women have lower wealth than their male counterparts. And they're the ones primarily taking care, financial and otherwise, of the children, and that's going to have repercussions down the line.

Smith: You ended your blog with some thoughts on those longer-term effects after the she‑cession. What will you each be looking out for in the months and the years to come as the economic situation evolves?

Covington:  We already know that this reduction in mothers' work hours and overall labor force participation is going to be resulting in billions of dollars in lost wages and economic activity. That's something that we're dealing with in the short-term real time. But ultimately, I'm concerned with what reentry really does look like. Because as Ana was alluding to in some of the research that her institute is doing and has been doing, it looks different, for different groups of women.

So for college educated women, I'm thinking about, if they haven't, entirely left the labor force yet, are they going to be returning to work? Are they going to be returning into a similar level of a job with a similar earnings trajectory than what they left? For women that were previously in service‑oriented positions, are those jobs going to be there when they want to return? Are those jobs going to be the same? I think it's just going back to kind of some of the earlier points that we made in this conversation is the she‑cession was largely because of the pandemic. And it got worse when the pandemic got worse. But, even while, things are improving now, right, in terms of the vaccine rollout, us all seeing this light at the end of the tunnel, it was still this shock that's going to have, these ripple lasting effects. Ana and her team as well as our team are going to be looking at, following what those effects are for years to come.

Hernández Kent: Yeah, I'll echo that. I'm going to be focused on the continued recovery and what that looks like, what the response looks like. As Meredith was saying, I think we just really need more flexibility and support in the workplace, better valuing of those undervalued jobs, both the paid ones and the unpaid ones that we've talked about today. And ultimately at the Institute for Economic Equity, we're going to continue to look beyond those headline numbers because they might represent averages or they might look at the aggregate, and that's going to hide, the pain and the financial struggles that many families are facing.

So just really digging deep, looking at those fault lines to understand which American families, which demographics are struggling so we can better center them in equitable recovery efforts. And I just think ultimately, we need conversations in this context that pull women in, not conversations that push women out. And so the better we're able to understand that data, the better poised we'll be to fulfill that and to help women not be left behind.

Smith: Meredith and Ana, thank you so much. You know, what you said about looking behind and beyond the aggregate numbers, behind every number and statistic and rate that we heard about and discussed, there are individual stories, you know, these are people. So I really appreciate you providing some context for the news and the numbers that we've heard throughout the past year and will continue to hear. Thank you so much for your time today.

Covington: Thanks, Christine. It was a pleasure.

Hernández Kent: Yeah, thank you, Christine. Well said.

Smith: So our listeners can find more of your research at And for more of our Timely Topics podcasts, please visit And you can stream this series on Apple Podcasts as well as Spotify and Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, "Alexa, play Timely Topics from TuneIn."  Thank you.

Economists and experts talk about their research, topics in the news and issues related to the Fed. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or the Federal Reserve System.

Back to Top