The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing women in the US out of the workplace in droves, putting them at risk of years of unemployment and financial uncertainty.
US employers cut 140,000 jobs in December, all of which were held by women, according to government data released on Jan. 8. Women accounted for 111% of December’s employment losses and lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found.
"The impact on women of this crisis is going to be one that they feel economically for years to come," Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the NWLC, told Fortune.
"We're really in danger of widening gender and racial wage gaps — and that has huge impacts for the financial security of women, and of the families who are depending on women."
The disparity in job losses can be attributed to the types of industries most impacted by the pandemic, which include education, hospitality, and retail, specifically clothing and accessories stores, and are dominated by women. An uptick in COVID-19 cases has also forced cuts in the hospitality and leisure industries, according to Fortune.
What’s more, many mothers are being pushed out of the workforce due to the imbalanced care burden and who, without child care or schools open, are being forced to stay at home with their children.
Women of color, who are more likely to work in industries that lack paid sick leave and work from home flexibility, were especially impacted by job losses, according to CNN. Roughly 154,000 Black women left the workforce in December, which was the largest one month drop since the beginning of the pandemic in March and April 2020, NWLC found. Latinx women currently have the highest unemployment rate at 9.1% followed by Black women at 8.4%. Meanwhile, white women have the lowest unemployment rate at 5.7%.
While economists advise against putting too much weight into one month’s employment rates, according to CNN, women have steadily experienced losses throughout the year. Women have lost 5.4 million jobs, or more than half of all jobs since February, compared to 4.4 million job losses for men, according to NWLC. While women started the year holding 50.03% of jobs, they ended the year holding 860,000 fewer jobs than men.
Experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic could set women back for decades and undo 50 years of progress in the gender pay gap.
Job losses among women in the US reflect a worldwide phenomenon. Of the 510 million women employed globally, 40% work in sectors hard hit by the pandemic, compared to 36.6% of employed men, according to UN Women. What’s more, of the women who are employed, 58% are a part of the informal workforce where they are paid lower wages, work in unsafe environments, and lack social protection.
Lack of employment can have a lasting impact on women, putting them more at risk of gender-based violence and setting them back from participating in the workforce and earning an income long-term, according to UN Women. The most vulnerable women — including migrant workers, refugees, and marginalized groups — are especially at risk, and if they have recently escaped extreme poverty, they are likely to fall back in.
To support women impacted by the pandemic, UN Women is urging governments and businesses to include direct payments for women as part of economic relief efforts, support women-owned and led businesses, provide social protection systems for women, support informal workers, and provide all workers with paid leave and flexible schedules.