Unlike the Great Recession, Covid-19 has been harder on jobs held by women

Women’s work.
Women’s work.
Image: (AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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In terms of US job losses, the 2008 recession had a far greater impact on men than women. Between 2007 and 2009, male employment fell by 7.5%, while female employment fell 3.1%.

The reason: Job losses were heavily concentrated in construction and manufacturing, where women only make up just 10% and 29% of the workforce, respectively.

The trend has been fairly similar in other recessions. But Covid-19 has turned things upside. This time around, the job losses so far have been concentrated in industries where women hold a majority.

The April jobs report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 2.5 million jobs were lost in the health and education sector, where women account for 74.8% of employment. Meanwhile, the retail trade sector—also heavily dominated by women, who represent 73.2% of all employees in clothing stores, for example—lost 2.1 million jobs. And in the leisure and hospitality sector, which has been the hardest hit, with jobs plummeting by 7.7 million, women account for 51.2% of workers.

The overall unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. Of the 20.5 million US jobs lost in April, women lost 11.3 million jobs, and men lost 9.2 million, according to the BLS.

Another difference between this crisis and previous ones is that schools and daycares are closed, which wasn’t a factor in 2008. As a result, the US labor force participation rate among women fell by 4.5%, whereas for men the rate fell 3.5%.

“That’s certainly due to the fact that women have to drop out of the labor force to look after children,” says Julia Pollak, an economist at ZipRecruiter. “Many men had to do so, too, but women disproportionately shoulder that burden.”

It’s not clear how the economic damage will play out. Some reports show that men never fully recovered after the Great Recession. Many of them entered the ranks of the long-term unemployed and would be linked to disproportionally high rates of suicide and opioid addiction. And many applied for disability insurance, leaving the labor market permanently for that reason, according to Pollak.

Though women may make up a larger percentage of the newly unemployed, in raw numbers, the job losses among men will be larger than in the last recession. Given the widespread impact on the labor market, Pollak says, “to the extent we saw terrible and social impact last time, we could very well see those again.”

Attachment theory

The latest figures on labor-market participation—measuring the share of the population that is employed or actively looking for work—underscore that female attachment to the labor market is typically weaker, says Pollak. Historically, when a woman’s earnings would go up, her husband usually would not scale back his participation in the workforce, but the reverse has not been true. 

Given that caregiving and household roles are more culturally ingrained for women, “losing their jobs may not be as damaging to their identity and their ability to function in society,” says Pollak.

When the labor market starts strengthening, women’s participation may suffer further if childcare options aren’t readily available, says Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed. 

But women are also more likely to work in part-time jobs, the availability of which tends to increase during recessions, he adds.

A survey by ZipRecruiter found that men are spending more time than women looking for new jobs. Among job seekers who were employed in February but have since lost their jobs or had their pay or hours cut, 67% of men and 62% of women said they were searching job sites daily.