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.

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