Mar 8, 2021 - Economy

"She-cession" threatens economic recovery

Image of woman hand holding vanishing suitcase

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Decades of the slow economic progress women made catching up to men evaporated in just one year.

Why it matters: As quickly as those gains were erased, it could take much, much longer for them to return — a warning Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued today.

  • What they're saying: "We're really concerned about permanent scarring from this crisis," Yellen said at an International Women's Day event — referring to the possibility that scores of female workers who left the labor force won't return.

The risk: "When women are not maximized in the labor force, they are earning less, they are spending less, there's less tax revenue. And there's less economic growth," Nicole Goldin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Program, tells Axios.

Catch up quick: Female workers haven't been hit this disproportionately hard by a recession in at least 40 years.

  • In the U.S., the workforce gender gap shrank in prior downturns — a quirk that only happened because men lost their jobs at a higher rate, which brought them closer to the level of female workers.

What's happening: This time, the global lockdown annihilated industries that are heavily concentrated with female workers: retail, restaurants, etc. (That also meant female-owned small businesses — also concentrated in these areas — saw more grim prospects.)

  • In addition, more often than not, women gave up jobs to take care of children as schools and daycare centers closed.

How it played out: Employment loss for women around the world stands at 5% — over a full percentage point higher than that for men, according to the latest estimates by the International Labour Organization.

  • "Other advanced economies have managed a lot better than the United States," Simeon Djankov, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), tells Axios.
  • The U.S., Canada, Italy and Japan are among the other advanced countries that saw worse labor force declines for female workers.
  • A group of other countries — including the U.K., Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands — actually saw the gender gap in their labor force in aggregate shrink by 0.9 percentage points.
  • That’s partly because of government programs that shored up female-dominated sectors or supported child care services, according to a report released by PIIE today.

The pandemic erased 30 years of progress for the U.S. female workforce in the space of a few months.

  • The proportion of women with jobs — or actively looking for one — hasn't been this low since the late 1980s.
  • As of February, the number is 55.8% — slightly better than the lowest point since the pandemic (55.3%).

The inequality within the inequality: The U.S. unemployment rate for white women is 5.2% — lower than the national 6.2% rate.

  • The story is much different for women of color: Black women have an unemployment rate of 9.1%. It's 8.6% for Hispanic/Latino women. The gaps with white women are wider now compared to pre-pandemic.
  • Of note: Wages for front-line Asian American/Pacific Islander female workers were up to 21% less than their white male counterparts, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute said today.

The bottom line: Economists say the she-cession threatens to hobble a full post-pandemic recovery.

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