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"The Unequal Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Employment" - Erin K. Anderson, Ph.D. | February 2021

Washington College

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant economic consequences, rivaling those of America’s Great Depression of the 1930s and Great Recession of the 2000s.  Because of work histories and employment sectors, men’s jobs have traditionally been most impacted by economic crises.  For instance, the Great Recession was dubbed a “mancession” because approximately 80% of the job losses were experienced by men (Thompson 2009).  Industries hardest hit were those that most often employed men, such as construction and manufacturing.

The current economic crisis is different.  It has been labeled a “she-cession” because this time around the majority of job losses are being felt by women, who dominate employment sectors like retail, foodservice and hospitality, healthcare, childcare, and education, the industries most impacted by economic change amid the pandemic.

As recently as 2019, women actually made up a majority of employees in the U.S. holding 50.04% of jobs, largely due to growth in the healthcare and retail sectors (Law 2020).  However, by the end of 2020, all of those gains were lost.  There were 2.2 million fewer women in the paid labor force in October 2020 than in October 2019 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021). And in December 2020 alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a loss of 156,000 jobs, all lost by women, and the addition of 16,000 jobs, all gained by men (Ewing-Nelson 2021).  These losses are a blow to a category of workers who were more likely to work part-time, more likely to work in low wage jobs, and averaged about 80% of the pay their male peers earned.

These unfortunate losses are not equitably distributed though; Black, Latina, and Asian women have suffered even greater losses in jobs, working hours, and wages throughout the pandemic. Women of color are more likely to be employed in what have become the hardest-hit sectors of the economy.  Not only do many of these women not have the opportunity to earn wages, but many may also be without benefits such as health insurance and don’t have the ability to work from home. C. Nicole Mason of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that these women “were already economically vulnerable before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that” (North 2020).

In addition to the loss of jobs, many women have been pushed out of the labor force because schools and daycares have closed and children must be cared for at home.  Women are leaving the paid labor force at higher rates than men during the pandemic because of caregiving needs for children and other family members.  When childcare is no longer available and schools move to virtual learning, a parent often has to remain in the home for care and oversight.  Even though women have made great strides in the paid labor force, they still bear the majority of the caregiving burden in families.  Because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols, these mothers can’t rely on their traditional networks of support for caregiving and thus often have to leave their jobs for family responsibilities.    

The effects of these job losses will be felt by women and the overall American economy for some time to come. Women lose wages, benefits, workplace seniority, and progress on career paths. The U.S. loses productivity and suffers a decline in economic growth (Gould and Schieder 2017).  Economic recovery from COVID-19 will depend on getting women, mothers in particular, back to work.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How do patterns in job loss for women indicate structural imbalances between the sexes in the U.S.?
  2. As the U.S. looks toward economic recovery, what kinds of policies could be implemented to help working women maintain employment in the paid labor force?


Ewing-Nelson, Claire. 2021. “All of the Jobs Lost in December Were Women’s Jobs.” National Women’s Law Center, January 8, 2021.

Gould, Elise and Jessica Schieder. 2017. “It’s Time We Acknowledge Women’s Contributions to the Economy – and How Much Bigger a Role They Would Play in a More Inclusive Economy.” Economic Policy Institute, March 7, 2017.

Law, Tara. 2020. “Women are Now the Majority of the U.S. Workforce – But Working Women Still Face Serious Challenges.” Time, January 16, 2020.

North, Anna. 2020. “The Great Recession was called a “mancession.” This one could be devastating for women.” Vox, June 10, 2020.

Thompson, Derek. 2009. “It’s Not Just a Recession, It’s a Mancession!” The Atlantic, July 9, 2009.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2021. Economic News Release, January 8, 2021.

About the Author

Erin K. Anderson is the Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland where she has taught for 17 years. She received her B.S. in Political Science from Boise State University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University. She regularly teaches courses on gender, family, social psychology, and social theory. She is the author of several articles and book chapters related to gender, family, identity, and teaching and learning as well as co-editor of Family-Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe. She is active with the Eastern Sociological Society and an editor with the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Resources and Innovations Library in Sociology (TRAILS).

Profile Photo of Erin K. Anderson, Washington College