Why has COVID-19 been especially harmful for working women?

October 2020

After decades of struggle, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women in the United States the right to vote. This hard-won right foretold the increasing presence of women not only in the voting booth, but also in the workplace. By the beginning of this year, the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, women’s labor force participation stood at 58%, nearly a three-fold increase since 1920. Without the increasing participation of women in the workforce, household income growth of the middle class would have remained largely stagnant since the late 1970’s.

While there is much to celebrate, the 19th Amendment’s centennial anniversary also coincides with a major threat to the gains women have made in the workplace: the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing measures required to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus have had staggering economic and social impacts, hitting women particularly hard.

COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up. Millions of women were already supporting themselves and their families on meager wages before coronavirus-mitigation lockdowns sent unemployment rates skyrocketing and millions of jobs disappeared. And working mothers were already shouldering the majority of family caregiving responsibilities in the face of a childcare system that is wholly inadequate for a society in which most parents work outside the home. Of course, the disruptions to daycare centers, schools, and afterschool programs have been hard on working fathers, but evidence shows working mothers have taken on more of the resulting childcare responsibilities, and are more frequently reducing their hours or leaving their jobs entirely in response.

Problems facing women in the labor market have never been hidden, but they have been inconvenient to address because they are so entrenched in the basic operations of our economy and society. The low wages associated with “pink collar” occupations have long contributed to the feminization of poverty, and the chronic shortage of affordable, high-quality childcare reflects outdated notions of women’s societal roles, how the economy functions, and child development. COVID-19’s massive disruption to employment, childcare, and school routines has crippled the economy and pushed millions of women and families to the financial brink. This moment provides an important opening to rethink how policy supports women’s roles as financial providers and parents.

Women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs

Based on our own analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data, before COVID-19, nearly half of all working women—46% or 28 million—worked in jobs paying low wages, with median earnings of only $10.93 per hour. The share of workers earning low wages is higher among Black women (54%) and Hispanic or Latina women (64%) than among white women (40%), reflecting the structural racism that has limited options in education, housing, and employment for people of color.

For some women, jobs paying low wages don’t present economic hardship—think of someone with a higher earning spouse or early in their career. But a substantial number of women support themselves and their families by working in low-wage jobs. Fifteen percent are single parents, 63% are in their prime working years (ages 25-54), and 57% work full time year-round, indicating the position is not a side activity. Forty-one percent live in households below 200% of the federal poverty level (equivalent to about $43,000 for a family of 3) a common measure capturing the working poor. More than one quarter receive safety net benefits like SNAP, Medicaid, Social Security, or other public assistance income.

Women are much more likely than men to work in low-paying jobs: 37% of working men earn low hourly wages, nearly 10 percentage points lower than women. Some of the difference between men and women is explained by personal choice—for example women often pursue education in lower paying majors, fields, and occupations than men. Some women also prioritize work flexibility over wages.

But, an extensive body of evidence shows women also face discrimination in the labor market. Even when women make the “right” choices—completing education and pursuing employment in high wage industries and occupations—they are underpaid relative to men, earning 92 cents to the dollar according to one recent analysis. While this underpayment doesn’t necessarily push women into low wages, the earnings disparity illustrates the devaluation of women’s contributions to the labor force. Occupations dominated by women and people of color, particularly care and domestic workers like home care aides, have been systematically and intentionally excluded from federal labor and employment protections, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act’s guarantee of minimum wage and overtime pay, and offer very low wages. Evidence also demonstrates that as an occupation becomes more female-dominated, median wages decline.

Our childcare and school systems don’t meet the needs of working mothers

The majority of women between ages 18 and 64 work. One in four working women, 15.5 million, has a child under the age of 14 at home. Some of these women work part time or have a family member on whom they can rely to provide supervision for their young and school-aged children. But more than 10 million (17% of all working women) rely on childcare and schools to keep their children safe while they work. These women are working at least half time and do not live with a potential caregiver at home—another adult who is either out of the labor force or working less than half time. In comparison, 12% of all working men are reliant on schools and childcare.

There simply are not enough affordable, high-quality childcare options to meet this demand, disproportionately harming working mothers, especially low- and middle-income mothers and mothers of color. The childcare that is available is often unaffordable. A 2018 analysis found that average childcare costs in every state exceed the federal definition of affordability—7% of annual household income. The same analysis found center-based childcare for an infant costs an average of more than $1,200 per month and about $900 per month for a toddler. As childcare becomes more difficult to access, women are more likely to stay out of or leave the workforce; one analysis found maternal labor force participation rates are 3 percentage points lower in childcare deserts than in areas with adequate childcare supply. The childcare system also relies on an underpaid, primarily female workforce—so not only is it a bad system for those it serves, but it undervalues those it employs.

As children get older, the public school system offers some reprieve from the costly and sometimes difficult to access childcare system. Even in normal times, though, parents who work outside of the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule are left to piece together supervision before school, after school, and during the summer. High income parents can often navigate this misalignment with quality childcare, afterschool programs, and summer camps. For lower income parents, this lack of alignment can be a real burden. And with fewer dollars to spend filling in the gaps between the school day and work schedules, low-income parents are more likely to rely on informal care arrangements, older siblings, and unlicensed home care providers.

COVID-19 has upended the labor market, with disastrous consequences for working women and their families

As we know, COVID-19 has massively disrupted American life. Beginning in March, non-essential businesses closed their doors, workers were furloughed or laid off, and schools and daycares sent children home. At its peak, 95% of the U.S. population was under stay at home orders.

Although necessary for public health, these closures resulted in an unprecedented number of unemployment claims as millions of workers were simultaneously furloughed or laid off. A stunning 39% of people living in low-income households reported a job loss in March, and while there are signs the economy is slowly improving, many people remain without work.

Because of their concentration in low-wage and face-to-face jobs, these layoffs hit women especially hard. While many higher wage jobs could transition from an in-person to remote work environment, that is not the case for the majority of low-wage jobs that rely on interaction between customers and workers, such as retail sales and hospitality, two of the most common occupations among low-wage women. The unemployment rate for women jumped by more than 12 percentage points between February and April while the rate for men increased by less than 10 percentage points. The losses for women without college degrees is even more staggering. Between March and early April, their employment rate dropped 15 percentage points compared to a drop of 11 percentage points among non-college educated men.

Those low-wage women who did not suffer job losses were primarily in frontline occupations, such as healthcare support and grocery workers. These women continued working, often with inadequate access to appropriate personal protective equipment, putting their health and the health of their loved ones at risk.

COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.

COVID-19 has also increased the pressure on working mothers, low-wage and otherwise. In a survey from May and June, one out of four women who became unemployed during the pandemic reported the job loss was due to a lack of childcare, twice the rate of men surveyed. A more recent survey shows the losses have not slowed down: between February and August mothers of children 12 years old and younger lost 2.2 million jobs compared to 870,000 jobs lost among fathers.

Balancing work and family obligations has long been the reality for women in the United States. Historically, women have been the primary caregivers in their families. This has remained true even as most women work outside the home and provide important contributions to household income. Mothers working full-time spend 50% more time each day caring for children than fathers working full-time. But COVID-19 and the uncertainty around childcare and in-person instruction for school-aged children this fall has further increased this burden. July estimates show employment levels in child care services are 20% below levels from the same period last year, indicating a persistent reduction in available childcare. Millions of daycare slots may be permanently lost without further intervention. For schools, reopening has largely been determined at the district level, with diverse approaches and varying levels of success. Furthermore, in-person instruction for students and the reopening of daycares is not a one-and-done proposition. So, while parents, but especially women who have taken on even more during the pandemic, may get a temporary reprieve, outbreaks may force children and their families to quarantine, schools or daycares to close temporarily, or more long-term moves to online instruction.

As the pandemic persists, women will continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of its burden. While there has been some recovery in the labor market, there is still a long way to go to reach pre-pandemic employment highs; low-wage jobs will be the first to disappear again if there is a severe resurgence of the virus this fall. For those women who have been able to keep their jobs, many will continue to balance competing priorities. To earn a paycheck, those who cannot telework must show up physically to work, potentially posing health risks to themselves and their families, and requiring them to find alternative care arrangements for their children if school or daycare are unavailable. Those who can work from home must also care for or help teach their children in the case of inaccessible childcare or limited in-person instruction at schools.

Solutions should do more than provide temporary support to working women

These realities have the potential to set back the labor force participation and wage gains women have made in the labor market over the last several decades.

Solutions to improve the conditions of working women should address both aspects driving the disproportionate harm they have borne as a result of COVID-19’s economic impacts: an overreliance on an inadequate childcare system and their concentration in low wage jobs.

While the role of women in our economy has shifted over the last 100 years, our systems have not similarly evolved to support them. Because these conditions have been longstanding, the solutions put in place should not exclusively focus on short term COVID-19 recovery, but should also make long-lasting changes that aim to close the wage gap, improve working conditions and family leave options, and better align the childcare and school systems to the needs of working parents so mothers who want to work can do so. Policy needs to reflect that women have fundamental roles in both the workplace and in families, and to support women in those roles.

Of course, short-term interventions to address the current crisis are necessary and welcome. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided 12 weeks of parental paid leave through the end of the year and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided enhanced unemployment benefits that reduced poverty rates. The CARES Act also provided direct aid to states to address immediate problems in education budgets and infused the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) with $3.5 billion to keep childcare providers afloat. But many of the most important provisions of these two pieces of legislation have expired, will expire soon, or were inadequate. The status of another relief package is totally unclear given the latest communications from the White House, and it seems unlikely these systems will receive any additional reprieve this fall.

In addition to the temporary fixes enacted by the FFCRA and the CARES Act, a permanent federal paid parental leave policy and a sustained funding increase for the CCDBG would go a long way in reducing the cost of childcare and working mothers’ overreliance on it. Other policies that could increase women’s labor force participation, close the wage gap, and make work more accessible for mothers include policies that incentivize or fund predictable work scheduling, guaranteed number of work hours, and extended school-day or before and after school programs. We are long overdue in realigning our labor market policies, schools, and daycare system with the modern reality faced by working parents; these interventions should be considered as part of the solution.

Beyond making work more accessible for mothers, the labor market also needs to more fairly compensate women for their work. Improving wage equality and reducing discrimination in the labor market is no easy task. Potential solutions include raising the federal minimum wage and eliminating the tipped minimum wage. Policies to incentivize wage transparency at the firm level can also decrease the gender wage gap.

A women’s place is in the family and the workforce, if they so choose. We can’t bounce back from the COVID-19 recession without interventions to support them in both roles. But we also need to recognize that although the pandemic created an acute and visible crisis, the lack of support for families and workers was a pre-existing condition. Even with the progress made since the passage of the 19th Amendment, our economy was doing a disservice to millions of working women before COVID-19 hit. Returning to the status quo should not be the goal. Instead, we should aim higher—for an economy that compensates women fairly for their work, improves access to jobs through family-friendly policies, and supports women in their chosen roles as breadwinners, mothers, or some combination of the two.

Thank you to Julia Du and Caroline George for research assistance.

This piece is part of 19A: The Brookings Gender Equality Series. Learn more about the series and read published work »

About the Authors

Nicole Bateman

Nicole Bateman

Research Analyst – Metropolitan Policy Program
Nicole Bateman is a research analyst with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Her work focuses on improving labor market outcomes for all workers, especially those our economy most often leaves out or leaves behind.
Martha Ross

Martha Ross

Senior Fellow – Metropolitan Policy Program
Martha Ross is a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. She researches and writes about workers and the labor market, with a focus on creating a healthy economy that offers opportunity for all. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she has written and spoken about the virus’ disproportionate impacts on low-wage workers and young adults, its effects on housing instability, and strategies to promote an equitable recovery.