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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The coronavirus' disproportionate impact on women workers is eroding years of progress.

Why it matters: In the long run, the pandemic could chip away at women's representation in the workforce and widen the gender pay gap, experts say.

What's happening: Women in the U.S. hit a milestone in February when, for the first time in history, they held the majority of non-farm payroll jobs, outnumbering men in the workforce. Then the pandemic hit, exacerbating many of the issues working women face.

Closed schools and day care centers along with stay-at-home orders dramatically increased the amount of housework that needed to be done. Women took on the bulk of that unpaid labor — and many were punished for it.

  • Since the pandemic began, American women have exited the workforce at a higher rate than men, per the Wall Street Journal. That's because they're disproportionately represented in the sectors that have suffered the most — like restaurants and salons — but also because many have had to, at least temporarily, quit their jobs to take care of children.

Working mothers are also facing overt discrimination.

  • Drisana Rios of San Diego, an account executive at an insurance broker, is suing her employer, saying she was fired because her young kids were making noise during calls.
  • Stephanie Jones of West Chester, Pa., also sued her company, saying she was fired for asking for flexible hours to care for her son.

As women lose or leave their jobs, or cut back on hours to make time for other types of work, they'll likely miss out on raises and promotions.

  • Women could have significant trouble re-entering the workforce. "We know from experience from past recessions that sometimes it's harder for women — especially women of color — to recover," says Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center.
  • And when women do return to work after taking time off, their salary offers are on average 7% lower than those of other candidates who haven't interrupted their careers, according to the compensation analysis company PayScale.

The stakes: All this "could lead to an increase in the gender employment gap," says Willem Adema, a senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. "And in the long term, it could increase the gender wage gap."

A bit of a silver lining: The pandemic is at least starting conversations about issues that working women have faced for decades — a dynamic that could prompt change. "The elephant in the room is on the table," says Lorraine Hariton, CEO of Catalyst, an organization that works with companies to put women in leadership roles.

  • Many companies are stepping up for their employees who are working parents: 40% of employers surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say they have offered additional child care accommodations, assistance or benefits.
  • "The current crisis may — and this is a big 'may' — lead to some reappraisal by men of what they should do at home," Adema says.
  • And the pandemic's experiment in remote work at scale could upend the traditional 9-to-5, five-day workweek, creating more flexibility for parents.

Go deeper

House GOP adds at least 10 women to their ranks

Republican congressional candidate-elect Nancy Mace. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

A record number of Republican women ran for federal office this year and so far the GOP has boosted the number of women in the House by at least 10 members.

Why it matters: The new representatives reflect a big win for the Republican Party — and a payoff in their efforts to recruit women to run for office. Only 13 women held seats in the House in the 116th Congress; those numbers are now expected to be at least 23 (the AP has called at least 12 races and two of the current female representatives are retiring).

Wildfires ravage communities in Northern California as thousands evacuate

Firefighters monitoring the scene as flames from the Dixie Fire jump across highway 89 near Greenville, California, on Tuesday. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Two massive California wildfires have triggered new mandatory evacuation orders for thousands of people and destroyed homes and businesses in the state's north overnight.

Details: The Dixie Fire, California's biggest blaze, razed houses and businesses as it ripped through the town of Greenville and surrounding areas in Plumas County Wednesday night. The rapidly spreading River Fire burned "multiple" homes as it tore through Placer and Nevada counties, KOVR notes.

Updated 49 mins ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

The U.S. women's team celebrates during a game against the Netherlands on July 30, 2021 in Yokohama, Japan. Photo: Logan Beerman/ISI Photos/Getty Images

⚽: U.S. women's soccer team beats Australia, wins bronze

🥇: Ryan Crouser breaks his own Olympic shot put record to win gold for U.S.

🛶: U.S. teenager Nevin Harrison wins first Olympic women's canoe 200m

🏐: U.S. Olympic beach volleyball duo one step away from realizing gold medal dream

📷: In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 13 highlights

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage