Women have been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s why and what we can do about it.

The mother has always needed to be Superwoman — her tasks so great and so demanding that they could only be completed by someone with superhuman strength. She must be the jack of all trades, master of all, simultaneously.  There is no room for error because all depend on her. These indefatigable responsibilities are only compounded by, if she chooses, participation in a workforce that treats this superhero-like less than she deserves. This has long been the reality of the mother, yet the pandemic has exacerbated this reality to the point of breakage.

Women, particularly mothers, have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic we are living through (and is certainly not over yet, despite what we all want to believe) is more than a matter of illness and death. Its detriments stretch far beyond the realm of physical health; it has altered life for women irrevocably. Women have been set back an entire generation, with the World Economic Forum reporting it will take women another 135 years to achieve gender parity globally. Women’s progress, within the workplace and without, has not merely been halted by this pandemic; it has been hurled backward into an uncertain darkness.

In the COVID-19 economy, the worst group affected by job losses have been women. From February 2020 to February 2021, about 493,000 more women have left the workforce than men. Relating to the number of those who have applied for unemployment, the numbers reveal that though more women have left the workforce, more men continue to search for work or wait to return from a temporary layoff. These losses drop female participation in the workforce to the lowest it’s been since 1988. The month most indicative of the large gender disparity was December 2020: women accounted for 100% of job losses. Women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000.

One factor that contributed to these massive losses is that female-dominated fields have been those most adversely affected by the pandemic. At the same time, those fields where women are least represented have been the least affected by COVID-19 related job losses. The personal care and service industry, which is 75% female, and the food preparation and serving industry, which is 55% female, had 10.7% and 10.8% increases in the unemployment rate, respectively. Conversely, the architecture and engineering industry, which is 17% female, had only a 0.4% increase in the unemployment rate, while the farming, fishing, and forestry industry, which is 28% female, actually had a 3.9% decrease in unemployment. 

Another factor that has driven women out of the workforce is childcare. As aforementioned, women are not merely losing their jobs but still actively searching for employment. Instead, they are leaving the workforce completely in large numbers. In some cases, they are not losing their jobs but willingly leaving to take care of their children. Before the pandemic, a Gallup poll revealed that in two-parent households with a male and female parent, 50% of households reported the mother is the parent more likely to take care of their children on a daily basis, where only 7% reported it was the father. Another 42% reported the responsibilities were shared equally. This disparity was also true in couples where both parents work. These numbers can begin to explain why so many women felt compelled to leave the workforce to take care of their children instead of their husbands.

A U.S. Census Bureau survey illustrates the real impacts of childcare on mothers’ decision to leave the workforce. Gallup reported, “Looking at data from both early in the pandemic (April 2020) and recently (January 2021), women have been far more likely than men to cite the need to provide child care for children out of school. Twenty-three percent of women with children enrolled in school gave this response in April, and 28% in January — compared with 11% and 12% of men with children enrolled in school, respectively. When applied to all adult women, 8% of those not working cite caring for children out of school or daycare, compared with 3% of adult men.” These percentages suggest that 406,000 women and 124,000 men stopped working because of school and/or daycare closures.

It is not just the loss of women in the workforce that has disadvantaged women during the COVID-19. Women’s mental, and sometimes physical, well-being have been victims of the pandemic. A pre-pandemic Gallup poll found that, in addition to childcare, women still maintain the majority of responsibilities in the household, such as laundry, cooking, and cleaning. This reality did not change with the pandemic but was only exacerbated by the inability to leave the house, eat out, or bring a child to daycare or school. Women’s self-reported well-being is significantly worse since the beginning of the pandemic than men’s. Working women with children at home have the highest sense of disruption, at 27%, which was greater than women without children at home, men with children at home, or men without children at home.

Part of the reason that the pandemic has been so disruptive for working mothers is that the typical support networks that existed in a pre-pandemic world, such as a reliance on grandparents or other people for child care, cannot happen during the pandemic. Zoom calls and virtual happy hours are no replacement for child care. That being said, the impacts of our virtual existence cannot be overlooked. When work was in person, one could leave work at 6 pm and get home to deal with dinner, homework, etc. Now, virtual work allows employers to work their employees all day, every minute filled with something, and with much longer hours. No rest and more work than ever, all while combined with child caring and virtual homeschooling at the same time, has had an injurious effect on working mothers especially. There is no separation between work and personal life. This creates an overwhelming cloud of exhaustion hanging over mothers constantly, complete with suffocating fatigue and frustrating helplessness.

This article is undoubtedly an incomplete examination of the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women. Foremost, it only looks at American women, and it does not look at the conditions that only get worse when we take into consideration socioeconomic factors like race and class. Nonetheless, there are substantive actions we can take to alleviate some of this stress for working women and mothers. The mass exodus from the workforce is not just going to go away as we move towards recovering from the pandemic. In March 2021, the US had a net gain of 916,000 jobs, which is a move in the right direction, but only 34.4% of them went to women. These statistics indicate the need for specific and deliberate actions focusing on issues that have been impacting women to be taken by both President Biden’s administration and corporations, or we will be unable to recover from such setbacks to women’s progress.

The end goal, of course, would be to dismantle the patriarchy and create a truly egalitarian society. Since that, though, will not be happening any time soon, we can take some immediate steps in the present. Government programs such as mandated paid family leave or universal pre-K would improve the lives of everyone but would be particularly beneficial for women and working mothers. Cutting down on the discriminatory practices against women, specifically mothers or pregnant women, is also necessary for the equality of women in the workplace. 

This change, in part, can be led by a radical transformation of workplace culture, especially in male-dominated fields. Many companies today talk about their “diversity and inclusion,” but they need to be held to their words. Actions speak much louder than words, and, in many cases, their actions do not reflect their supposed intentions for a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Businesses need to recognize that being a woman or a mother is not a disadvantage. Instead, they bring to the table a unique skill set. For example, women are the key leaders of the interpersonal “care” aspects of work. In the COVID-19  pandemic, it is exactly this key point of connection between workers that has been lacking. Women can step up to mend the gaps, should they be given the opportunity to do so. 

It is impossible to be gender blind when approaching the issues at hand; such an approach will only harm women. Instead, we must look at addressing the specific issues that they are facing while leaning on them for the essential perspective that they bring to the workplace. For a start, let’s all thank our moms and the unstoppable superwomen around us for everything that they do. They deserve it.