Four times more women than men dropped out of the workforce in September, according to economic data released Friday, affirming fears that women’s careers are collapsing under the pressures of caring for and educating children through a pandemic.
The latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 80 percent of the nearly 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force in September were women. That’s 865,000 women, compared to 216,000 men.
The disparity, economists say, demonstrates that women are bearing the burden of child care responsibilities throughout the pandemic, as many surveys have suggested.
“You’ve been seeing smoke for a really long time and you finally see the fire,” said Michael Madowitz, an economist for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“This looks exactly like you would think this would look if there was going to be an unequal sharing of the extra child care burden.”
The data also suggest that pragmatic calculations are being done in households where women still often earn less than their spouses.
Although attitudes toward gender equality have improved, said Madowitz, the round-the-clock caregiving demands of the pandemic have forced many couples with dual incomes to choose just one: the better-paying one.
“Statistically speaking, that’s still more likely to be the male,” he said.
Multiple crises disproportionately affected women’s jobs during the pandemic, said Kate Bahn, director of Labor Market Policy for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which studies economic inequality.
In addition to maintaining their lead role in managing child care for their families — and stepping into the gap created when child care centers, schools, and camps closed — women are overrepresented in industries that were hit hard by shutdowns, such as hospitality and food service. And women dominate in fields where workers continue to be most at risk, such as health care, she said.
“All these things are layered on top of each other, putting women in a pretty impossible situation,” said Bahn.
The lost jobs revealed by the labor statistics reflect those who have stopped looking for work and no longer show up in unemployment rates. For women, unemployment rates have dropped since the spring, to 7.7 percent; the September rate was 7.4 percent among men age 20 and older. However, economists and activists point out that the numbers obscure trouble spots, particularly for women of color.
“The big numbers we’re seeing in the news are not showing the actual tragedy below that: intense wage discrimination, compounded by structural racism that moms of color are experiencing right now,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of Moms Rising, a network that advocates for policy and cultural changes that support mothers and families. She pointed to the wide wage gap for mothers, particularly for women of color.
In addition, the unemployment rate for Latinas climbed last month — from 10.5 percent to 11 percent — and Black women still faced a double-digit unemployment rate of 11.1 percent in September.
The economic data followed this week’s release of a report by the Lean In organization and McKinsey & Company that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and Lean In founder, called the most alarming she had ever seen. The “Women in the Workplace” report found that one out of three mothers may be forced to scale back their careers or opt out of the workforce entirely.
Until the pandemic, Bahn said, women’s increasing participation in the labor force and improving wages were helping to offset the household effects of income inequality, making their salaries “the thing that has made the difference for families’ income security.”
The pandemic is changing all that, and could have effects for years to come, she said.
“We know when women take a year off of work, it’s not just one year of work,” Bahn said. “It reduces their lifetime earnings potential.”
The way to offset the crisis for the unemployed is to restore enhanced unemployment benefits, she said.
Rowe-Finkbeiner, of Moms Rising, also called for an immediate infusion of funds and a complete reimagining of child care infrastructure. The US House of Representatives this week passed a $2.2 trillion pandemic relief bill that includes $50 billion for child care stabilization grants. But similar measures have not yet found support in the Senate.
“We need Congress to act because when this many people are having the same problems at the same time, we don’t have an epidemic of personal failings, as it’s sometimes framed around motherhood,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner. “Instead, we have a national structural crisis that we can and will solve together.”