Hit Hard By Pandemic Job Losses, Women Bounced Back (Briefly)

young woman in office holding paperwork
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Women—among the groups hardest hit by job losses early in the pandemic—returned to the workforce in droves last summer. That recovery, paired with later job losses among men, closed an employment gap between men and women, but it looks like the parity won’t stick.

Key Takeaways

  • The number of women with jobs dropped by 18% in the first two months of the pandemic, compared with a 13% decrease for men, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  • Women bounced back substantially between April and September, with researchers noticing the gap had practically closed by the start of the new school year.
  • As a surge in virus cases has hampered the economy, both men and women have experienced a loss in jobs, with women losing more.

More than 20 million people lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, but some groups shouldered the burden more than others, according to a new analysis of Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Young people, low-wage workers, Black and Hispanic people, and women are among those who experienced outsized job losses last spring.

Between February and April 2020, the number of employed women dropped by 18%. Employment for men, meanwhile, fell 13% in the same period. Women may have lost jobs at a greater rate early on because, with schools closed and children learning remotely, they may have stopped working in order to care for their kids due to pandemic-related school closures, the researchers said. This assertion is supported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that women, statistically, are more likely to be responsible for childcare.

But women rapidly rejoined the workforce, with researchers noticing the gap had practically closed by the start of the new school year in September. Then, as virus cases surged in the fall and the economy began weakening again, women’s employment held relatively steady while more men began losing their jobs. As of December 2020, the gap between women and men had disappeared, with both groups having 5% fewer jobs than they did early last year, the New York Fed analysis found. 

“As the economy has weakened, it isn’t that women have gained on men, it's that men have lost jobs,” said Jaison Abel, assistant vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group, in a virtual press conference on Tuesday.

Women are more likely than men to be able to work from home, which could explain why women were not losing their jobs at the same rate. In a report released in December, 41% of women surveyed by Pew Research Center said they have jobs that can mostly be done from home, compared to 36% of men.

The researchers noted that, while employment gaps between a variety of demographic groups had narrowed by December, they may have widened since then as the economy slows down yet again amid a surge in virus cases.

These gaps have begun to show up in federal jobs data that was not included in data the New York Fed analyzed. The revised December employment report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week showed women had lost 196,000 jobs that month, while men lost 31,000. The January BLS monthly jobs report, also released last week, shows women gained 87,000 jobs back and men lost an additional 38,000. The net result is a decrease in employment levels for both women and men over the last two months, though women’s job losses outpaced men’s.

The economic recovery has stalled in recent months, with initial claims for unemployment insurance stuck at three to four times pre-pandemic levels. The U.S. economy added just 49,000 jobs in January, and there are still almost 10 million fewer jobs than there were before the pandemic.

As of the end of January, women were at 93% of pre-pandemic payroll levels and men were at 94%, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found in an analysis using BLS data.

Meanwhile, more than 2.3 million women have stopped looking for jobs altogether since the start of the pandemic, according to a February report from the National Women’s Law Center. Just 57% of adult women are either working or looking for work, it found.