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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).

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Skripal poisoning suspects linked to Czech blast, as country expels 18 Russians

Combined images released by British police in 2018 of Alexander Petrov (L) and Ruslan Boshirov, who are suspected of carrying out an attack in the in the southern English city of Salisbury using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and also the2014 Czech depot explosion. Photo: Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Czech police on Saturday connected two Russian men suspected of carrying out a poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, with a deadly ammunition depot explosion southeast of the capital, Prague, per Reuters.

Driving the news: Czech officials announced Saturday they're expelling 18 Russian diplomats they accuse of being involved in the blast in Vrbětice, AP notes. Czech police said later they're searching for two men carrying several passports — including two with the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Indianapolis mass shooting suspect legally bought 2 guns, police say

Marion County Forensic Services vehicles are parked at the site of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

The suspected gunman in this week's mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis legally purchased two assault rifles believed to have been used in the attack, police said late Saturday.

Of note: The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's statement that Brandon Scott Hole, 19, bought the rifles last July and September comes a day after the FBI told news outlets that a "shotgun was seized" from the suspect in March 2020 after his mother raised concerns about his mental health.