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In one month, job cuts wipe out women’s gains of the past decade

Policy makers and advocates worry coronavirus crisis will set women back

Katie Ring photographed her children, Cece, 4, and Brady, 6, during a commercial shoot at her home in Marblehead. Ring is trying to do work from home, including this assignment for which she used her own children as models.
Katie Ring photographed her children, Cece, 4, and Brady, 6, during a commercial shoot at her home in Marblehead. Ring is trying to do work from home, including this assignment for which she used her own children as models.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In the five weeks since she last worked, Anny Santa has not received a paycheck or unemployment benefits. Laid off from LSG Sky Chefs, where she prepared sandwiches and salads for Lufthansa flights, she now works full time on forms and phone lines, trying to figure out why her benefits haven’t gone through and how to feed her 8-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter.

“My days are very difficult and very long,” she said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “I spend a lot of time calling different numbers, calling unemployment. Sometimes my body hurts. I don’t know if that’s stress or emotional, but things are very difficult for me.”

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Santa, a single mother from Lynn, is among those disproportionately affected by the current economic crisis: women. Though they make up barely half of the US workforce, women represent 55 percent of those jettisoned from it last month, unemployment data show.

Women lost 11.3 million jobs in a single month, wiping out all their gains of the past decade since the end of the Great Recession, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Women’s unemployment rate — 15.5 percent — hit double digits for the first time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting data by gender in 1948 and now exceeds the rate for men, which stands at 13 percent.

In Massachusetts, women made up 53 percent of those who filed new unemployment claims between March 15 and April 25 — a big shift from February, when they represented just 38 percent, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

That’s why C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, has taken to calling this economic crisis a “she-cession.” Unlike the 2007 to 2009 recession, which targeted the male-heavy industries of manufacturing and construction, the coronavirus closures detonated the leisure, hospitality, and health care sectors whose employee bases skew female. Still, the law center’s analysis shows, women lost even more jobs in those sectors than the numbers would predict. Policy makers and advocates are concerned that even when the economy reopens, many of them will remain out of the workforce.

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“There’s not going to be 100 percent job replacement,” said Mason. “Some will be gone forever. That will have a long-term impact on women workers.”

That’s devastating to the many families like Santa’s, in which working mothers are the primary or substantial breadwinners, earning at least 40 percent of the household’s income. Santa said her daughter, who’s in college, also got laid off from her job at a store and has been unable so far to claim unemployment.

Santa, 40, said she’s worried not only about rent and car payments, but also medicine for her son, who has allergies and asthma. He also seems to be struggling with his schoolwork at home.

“I do my best to help him, but I think we’re going to have to take him to a therapist after all this,” she said. “He’s not sleeping well at night. He just wants to play on the phone and the tablet. He doesn’t want to do his homework.”

The closure of schools and child-care centers has doubled duties for parents, who now must supervise not only their children’s care but also their curriculum. Two recent surveys conducted amid the coronavirus quarantines found that women report they’re doing a greater share of the home schooling and other parenting duties, though men seem to think they are.

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“Women are disproportionately impacted by this crisis on pretty much every dimension I can see — except biologically,” said Mignon Duffy, associate professor and chair of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Women and Work. In many places around the world — though notably, not in Massachusetts — men have been dying from the coronavirus in greater numbers than women.

All the extra caregiving could have implications for women’s return to the workforce. Many working mothers found their carefully calibrated work-life balance upended as soon as the shutdown began.

In normal times, Katie Ring, a self-employed food and product photographer who rents a studio space for her work, would share child care duties fairly evenly with her husband. He packed the school lunches. She dropped the kids off. On mornings when she had photo shoots, he took the lead, and her flexibility allowed her to attend school activities in the middle of the day.

Then came a pandemic that canceled many of her photo shoots and closed schools and after-school programs. Since her husband, a financial analyst, is able to work from their Marblehead home, Ring assumed the leading role as caregiver for their 6-year-old kindergartner and 4-year-old preschooler. Now, she’s lucky to claim a few hours of work a day.

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“I have to go back to trying to negotiate all that again because everything looks so different,” said Ring, 38. “All the arrangements it took a long time to put into place don’t work anymore.”

With the children home, she has to schedule times for client phone calls — at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day — and when she has a shoot, she has to ask her husband to take a day off. Social distancing has demanded even more creative problem-solving: Unable to visit restaurant kitchens to photograph dishes, she began shooting takeout in the back of her van. Unable to hire models for photo shoots, she photographed her own children for burger packaging.

If enhanced unemployment benefits end as anticipated, in July, her benefits will no longer cover the rent on her studio. Is it even worth it to keep paying rent for a space she barely gets to use? What if schools can’t open in September?

Emotionally, Ring said, it’s been hard for her to deal with the thought that her business might not survive this period — and that she’s watching what she built slipping away from her.

“It feels like the world is forcing me to be a stay-at-home mom," she said. "And the stress is, I don’t want that.”

“For me, I’m a creative. I’m an artist. My identity is so tied to being a photographer and being an artist,” she added. “I love what I do.”

After wrestling with such calculations — and being unable to reconcile expensive child care and limited salaries — many women may bow out of the workforce.

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“Whether or not women are able to remain in the workforce and retain their jobs is going to be directly tied to the kind of support we give them," said Mason, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. "If the schools don’t come back and we open the economy and women are expected to go back to work but there’s no child care, then obviously the women who can are going to make some hard choices about whether they can go back to work.”

UMass-Lowell professors are asking administrators how they might mitigate the potential unequal effects on women’s academic careers, Duffy said. They were alarmed by anecdotal reports elsewhere of an immediate, dramatic drop in article submissions from female faculty members, but not from men. Presumably, that’s because women are facing a greater squeeze at home, said Duffy, who noted that women have done a disproportionate share of unpaid caregiving in “all cultures, in all historical periods, even with the influx of women in the paid labor force.”

Could that result in mostly male faculty members getting published after the pandemic, she wondered. What if only men are granted tenure as a result?

Duffy encourages workplaces to “think through long-term implications so that this crisis doesn’t exacerbate inequalities. If we don’t intervene, this could really deepen and move backwards gender inequality in the workplace.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert