Women Bear The Brunt Of Coronavirus Job Losses

May 9, 2020
Originally published on May 9, 2020 6:20 pm

Very briefly, at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, there were slightly more women on American nonfarm payrolls than men.

That's no longer true. The historically disastrous April jobs report shows that the brunt of job losses fell on women.

Women now account for around just under half — 49% — of American workers, and they accounted for 55% of the increase in job losses last month.

One way of looking at why that matters that is to look at the gap that opened up between women's and men's unemployment last month. The below chart shows women's unemployment rate minus men's unemployment rate since 2007.

Usually, the line bumps around near or just below zero — meaning men's unemployment is usually near or slightly higher than women's.

But that spike on the far right shows how women's unemployment leapt to be 2.7 points higher than men's in April. Women had an unemployment rate of 16.2% to men's 13.5% last month.

That's uncommon for a recession. The below chart is a longer view, and the periods with gray backgrounds are recessions. During every recession since 1981, men's unemployment has shot up past women's — that is, the line dips negative.

This is a big sign of how the downturn caused by coronavirus is unlike past recessions, says Matthias Doepke, professor of economics at Northwestern University. He and some colleagues wrote a paper in March about the coronavirus' effects on women, before the first coronavirus job report was even out.

"It's stuff we said was probably coming," Doepke said.

They saw it coming for a couple of reasons, he says. One is the industries suffering most in this downturn.

Past recessions have hit male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction relatively hard — think about the housing downturn and automaker layoffs after the 2008 financial crisis, for example. Those helped push unemployment for men higher.

This time is different, Doepke says: "The highest employment losses are things like restaurants and hospitality, hotels, and those are sectors with high female employment."

But there may be an even more important factor here, he says: child care.

"You have all these schools closed. So you have a much higher requirement for child care at home," he said. "And because women are going to do the majority of that already, they are more affected."

It is true that women do more child care in the home right now. Even in families with both parents working full-time, women are far more likely than men to manage schedules and activities, and to take care of kids when sick.

In addition, women are far more likely than men to be a single parent, meaning that a lack of child care leaves them with no options.

"You have 60 million single moms in the United States and many of them have no alternative child care, especially now that grandparents are not supposed to come over anymore," Doepke said. "And so for many of them, it's simply not possible to work again. So there will be forced unemployment because of child care."

The effects of this may last well beyond the coronavirus crisis — Doepke and his coauthors note that job losses in a recession often mean persistently lower wages, as well as less secure future employment.

That may mean that one long-term effect of this crisis is a wider gender wage gap.

However, Doepke also says some aspects of the current crisis could counteract those child-rearing forces working women are up against.

"One side is the side of employers who are now going to be more flexible, offer work from home much more than they used to, and maybe also just become more aware that everybody has child care needs, not just mothers," he said.

Many workers who are able to work from home, after all, have seen their fellow workers caring for children on Zoom meetings. The reality of parenting while working is much more visible for some workers and bosses now.

In addition, the economic crisis could contribute to further shifting of social norms in terms of how much work fathers do.

"There's also going to be millions of families right now where things actually completely reversed because the mother is maybe a doctor or at the hospital and has to be there," Doepke said. "Whereas the father is an academic like me or an office worker who can work from home or maybe even is unemployed and therefore by default becomes the primary provider of child care."

But then, there remain the millions of workers who can't work from home and who are hard at work at the grocery store or delivering food. The gendered effects of the crisis will also vary by class and race, and will become much more clear as we get more and more jobs reports.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


In the months before the coronavirus pandemic, there were more women than men on employer payrolls. That's no longer true. In the April jobs report, we learned that the brunt of job losses fell on women. That could have effects on women that last well beyond the crisis. To talk more about this, we've called NPR politics and economics reporter Danielle Kurtzleben.

Danielle, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So women lost more jobs than men. How bad was it?

KURTZLEBEN: It was bad. They accounted for more than half - 55% - of the job losses last month. So women now have an unemployment rate of 16.2%, which is almost three points higher than men's unemployment rate. Now, that's highly unusual for a moderate economic downturn - for women to have a jobless rate higher than men and especially one that's that much higher.

MARTIN: So why is that unusual? Talk a bit more about what's going on right now that's contributed to that.

KURTZLEBEN: Past recessions have often hit industries like construction and manufacturing, and those are industries that have a lot of men that work in them. Think about the Great Recession as an example of this. But now you have restaurants, hotels, retail stores, doctor's offices - those places are sending people home. And those industries are more likely to have lots of women working in them.

MARTIN: And, of course, this recession is unusual, unique for a lot of reasons. I mean, the fact is that, you know, whole cities have basically been shut down, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, absolutely. And that gets at another way that this recession is really unusual. It's that the kids have been sent home. I talked about this with Matthias Doepke. He's an economics professor at Northwestern University, and he has been studying COVID-19's economic effects by gender. And he told me that child care might be having the biggest effect on women's jobs numbers right now. Here he is.

MATTHIAS DOEPKE: Now that you have all these schools closed, so you have a much higher requirement for childcare at home. Because women are doing the majority of that already, they are more effective.

KURTZLEBEN: And part of that is that in families with a dad and a mom, mom often does more child care than the dad. But there's also this - women are much more likely to be solo parents than men. He explained that as well.

DOEPKE: We have 16 million single moms in the United States, and many of them have no alternative child care, especially now, now that grandparents are not supposed to come over anymore. And so for many of them, it's simply not going to be possible to work.

KURTZLEBEN: And by the way, in addition, there are some big class effects here. You have a lot of women who do work. It's essential work. It's often blue-collar work. And it's work that cannot be done at home. And so that constrains them. They have to pick between work and taking care of their kids.

MARTIN: So what are the experts saying about how this might affect women's job prospects in the future?

KURTZLEBEN: In the past, people who got laid off in recessions - when they eventually did find work, they tended to have lower wages than they did before, and it tended to be unsteadier work. So, since more women are losing jobs right now, this could mean a tougher time for women in the future in particular.

But then there is one other thing that Doepke pointed out to me. This crisis has made many employers a lot more flexible with work arrangements and just more aware of their employees' parenting needs. So it's possible that at least some employers might get more flexible and be more willing to work with parents on things like scheduling. So that would benefit all parents but probably particularly women.

MARTIN: Daniel Kurtzleben. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.