Workforce Update: A Balancing Act for America’s Working Women

By Rachel Vilsack, September 03, 2020

As schools across the country are back in session in largely remote or hybrid learning settings, coupled parents and single parents once again need to meet the education and care needs of their school-age children. Women – whether furloughed from their jobs or on telework status due to the pandemic – contributed an average of 12.8 hours per week to home-based teaching activities with children in late April.

As states reopen and jobs in sectors with high concentrations of women workers are returning, working mothers will see increased pressure while trying to balance work, childcare, and school schedules that are contingent on when and if the coronavirus spreads. And the situation may be dire for permanently displaced women – especially low-income workers – who need to prioritize housing and food security needs of their families above reentering the job market.

An inclusive economic recovery must prioritize investments in education and training tied to labor market demand – and the necessary support services – to connect displaced women to the upskilling needed to fully compete in the economy’s restructuring and expansion.

Just the facts, ma’am

One story that emerged during the Great Recession was the disproportional economic impact on men, as job losses battered the manufacturing and construction sectors, which traditionally employ male-dominated occupations. The current recession is trending in the opposite direction, a phenomena not seen in economic downturns in the United States. When many state stay-at-home orders temporarily closed businesses in April 2020, women (age 20 and over) saw a peak unemployment rate at 15.5 percent, compared to 13.0 percent for men, on a seasonally adjusted basis. While unemployment rates for both men and women have trended downwards in recent months, the impact of this recession – and subsequent recovery – for women will be closely studied for years to come.

Here are some workforce trends experienced by women during this pandemic and recession:

  • Unemployment rates for Black women and Latino women continue to trend higher than white women. As of July, rates for Black and Latino women (age 20 and over) were 14.1 and 14.4 percent, respectively, compared to a 10.3 percent unemployment rate for white women. Research shows that Latino women are heavily represented in sectors that were most impacted by pandemic shutdowns.
  • A similar trend exists for foreign born women, whose monthly unemployment rates are trending four percentage points higher than native born women – 14.7 percent versus 10.7 percent in July. Of note here is the disparity between foreign born men and women: the unemployment rate for foreign born men (10.7 percent) is just one percentage point higher than the rate for native born men (9.5 percent).
  • While some jobs held by women have retuned – most notably in the leisure and hospitality sector – working hours and income, by extension, have not. One in four women worked part-time in July but wanted full-time work. Prior to the pandemic this rate was one in ten.
  • Overall, women make up about 39 percent of frontline workers and are highly concentrated in health care practitioner and support occupations. Women also hold a large percentage of cashier positions in retail and grocery stores. It is especially important to note that workers of color hold a majority share of the health care support jobs, and nearly one in four health care support workers are single mothers.
  • Women (41 percent) were more likely than men (31 percent) to have teleworked because of the pandemic in May, the first month this data point was available. By July, these percentages had fallen and narrowed: 29 percent for women and 24 percent for men. In general, workers with higher levels of education have a greater ability to telework during this pandemic.
  • For parents, working from home also requires balancing childcare needs – nearly 40 percent of workers who teleworked because of the pandemic in May had children under 18. While the data do not allow us insight into who is providing extra childcare, women, on average, spend more hours per day caring for children. And recent analysis by the Census Bureau points to three in ten women aged 25 to 44 who were not working in mid-July due to COVID-19 related childcare issues.
  • Short- and long-term dislocation of women from jobs will also impact their future career trajectories and earnings. One research study estimates that for women the average earnings loss during a recession amounts to 3.3 years of pre-displacement earnings.

We’re facing an unprecedented confluence of events that has resulted in a disproportionate impact on job loss among occupations that employ more women. This occupational segregation, particularly for women of color in lower earning positions, is an important racial equity lens to bring to skills investments. Some sectors where women are majority job holders have low potential for automation, while also lacking lack skill development and career advancement opportunities.

Take action

September is national Workforce Development Month, a recognition that the education, training, and career advancement of our workforce allows the United States to remain competitive in an international economy. This year, the need for skills investments is critical to helping those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and to jumpstart the halting recovery for women.

Skill policies that broaden the infrastructure talent pipeline by supporting workers’ success (BUILDS Act) and sector partnerships that center apprenticeship and other work-based learning strategies (PARTNERS Act) can help all workers, especially women, succeed in 21st century careers. And access to wrap-around services, including high-quality childcare, are essential for young mothers to fully participate in retraining opportunities.

Make your voice heard: investments in our public workforce system must uplift the voices of displaced women workers so they can be a full part of an inclusive economic recovery.