By now, the general American public has grown accustomed to news that women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic-gripped economy, but when the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals 140,000 job cuts in December, with women accounting for all of them, it becomes clear that it’s not just the economic recovery that may be backsliding, but workplace gender parity, too.
“It’s shocking that the net impact of December’s lost jobs are 100 percent women. Women understand the factors that contributed to this,” said Cathrin Stickney, founder and CEO of Parity.org, a nonprofit that advocates for gender parity in business leadership. “Jobs in private education, beauty salons and services, retail, and local government (these are the jobs that were among the 140,000 lost) are held predominantly by women. These jobs took a big hit during the pandemic and are the most at risk in the short term. Additionally, many women were compelled to prioritize child care and education. Until we reach herd immunity with a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s little evidence that these factors will be reversed for women, which is troubling.”
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The “troubling” and seemingly implausible stat is, in fact, accurate: according to BLS, total employment declined by 140,000 last month — employment for women fell by 156,000 while employment for men was up 16,000. That means women accounted for 100 percent of the net job losses for December. It’s a steep drop-off from the 179,000 jobs women gained in November and the 323,000 gained in October, but could signal a move into increasingly dangerous territory as women’s jobs, more broadly, are diminishing.
“Women have suffered the majority of pandemic-related job losses: since February 2020, women have lost over 5.4 million net jobs, and account for 55 percent of overall net job loss since the start of the crisis,” according to a fact sheet from the National Women’s Law Center, which flagged the jarring disparity.
In retail, there were 349,000 fewer women in the workforce last month than in December 2019, and women now account for 48.5 percent of the retail trade workforce, down a full percentage point year-over-year. “The retail trade sector gained 120,500 jobs in December,” NWLC wrote. “Women accounted for only 44.2 percent of those gains, while making up 48.5 percent of the retail trade workforce.”
As many as one in 16 women were unemployed in December, with the jobless rate reaching 6.3 percent, nearly double what it was in December last year, according to BLS. And, as has consistently been the case, women of color have been the hardest hit. Among Hispanic or Latin women, one in 11 are jobless, with the unemployment rate a much higher 9.1 percent. Among Black women, more than one in 12 are out of work, meaning an 8.4 percent unemployment rate. White women fall below the average jobless rate, with 5.7 percent unemployed in December.
“This week, America has really had a wakeup call about the realities of our country,” said Christian Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, nodding to the recent events at the Capitol, which brought the disparities between how different groups are treated in this country into sharp focus. “We are neglecting the value of women, women out there working…as frontline workers, restaurant workers, retail workers — the essential workers that are needed to keep our companies and our country sustaining and livable and thriving but yet we are laying them off, we are underpaying them, we are releasing them, we’re not providing adequate health care so they can continue working.”
In the short term, NOW, the largest organization of grassroots activists pushing to achieve and protect equal rights for women, is working on COVID-19-relief funding to help women who have lost their jobs, can’t afford child care or don’t have access to it because pandemic restrictions have limited availability.
“There is definitely a need for more substantial COVID-19 relief that is suitable and substantial for sustainability and living, not just something as simple as $200 that will cover only a light bill. We have to talk about livability to take care of these families, so we are definitely supporting measures and legislation that will provide substantial COVID-19 relief funding,” Nunes said. “Long term, we’re talking about more resources for including more accessible, affordable child care in general, and improving paid leave are essential for families [like via the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would allow covered employees to take job-protected leave for family and medical reasons]. It makes no sense where a mother or parent would have to choose between losing their job or staying home with their sick child or their sick family member because they’re caregivers. That should not be a choice in America.”
It’s the long-term ramifications of the unequal job losses that pose the biggest concern for progress with workforce gender parity, which was a slow-going effort even before the pandemic reared its head.
“One year ago exactly, just before COVID-19 hit us around the globe, women actually made up the majority of the U.S. workforce, holding 50.4 percent of jobs [as of December 2020, that number is 49.7 percent]. The International Labour Organization estimates that two-thirds of the jobs that are permanently lost because of the pandemic are traditionally women’s jobs, consistent with December’s numbers, so the long-term outlook for working women could be bleak unless they are given access to new opportunities and the training to succeed. It has taken decades for women to get to last year’s level of workforce participation, and if we aren’t intentional in our actions, it could take an equal amount of time to recover,” Stickney said. “These losses are certainly a setback.”
As the U.S. shuttered in March in hopes of quelling the spread of the pandemic, businesses boarded up temporarily and schools shuttered, too. That meant parents — and specifically women — were newly tasked with balancing work from home with teach from home, among the already existing roles many already took on. The manifold challenges have taken their toll and driven women to drop out of the workforce (whether voluntarily or not) at a higher rate than men.
“The last 10 months have been eye-opening. We’ve learned a lot. One thing we know is that the gains we’ve made in gender parity in the workforce are more fragile than we thought,” Stickney said. “Without the intentionality of leadership to repair the damage to their female workforce, those gains could be lost. There will be a period of recovery. Women need to be brought back to the workforce in equal numbers in jobs that pay the same as men and offer the same upward mobility. And many of the jobs in the future will be virtual — women will need child-care support more than ever before.”
In October, Parity, along with Ralph Lauren and other key industry players, rolled out a new roadmap for ending fashion’s gender inequities. The outlined path draws on the Parity Model, which stresses equal representation for women in governance and executive leadership, pay equality, executive preparation and complete inclusion, meaning the elimination of microaggressions, harassment and the kinds of discrimination that could put women at a greater risk for losing jobs than their male counterparts. It also calls for supporting women in their numerous roles between career and home and the unique aspects of what home entails in the midst of a pandemic that has seen schools largely in remote learning mode.
While gender diversity hasn’t been at the forefront of the current conversation as the world — and fashion, in particular — grapples with racial disparities that have long disadvantaged people of color, it’s a topic that can’t slip through the cracks, especially with the knowledge that women of color are most at risk for setback.
“Among adult women ages 20 and over who were unemployed last month, about two in five (39.9 percent) had been out of work for six months or longer,” NWLC noted. “For Asian women ages 16 and over, the share of unemployed workers who had been out of work for six months or longer was a startling 44 percent. For Black women and Latinas ages 16 and over, the corresponding rates of long-term unemployment were 40.8 percent and 38.3 percent, respectively.”
Though Nunes expects conditions for women workers to worsen before they improve — with job losses continuing to rise — considering the country has yet to stanch the spread of the virus, she has hopes the incoming administration could see things improve.
“Having an administration that really prioritizes a feminist agenda will be key in seeing progress in [equality for women],” she said. “It’s great and very exciting to see that this new cabinet that the Biden-Harris administration has picked is 50 percent made up of women as well as a very diverse cabinet that represents an intergenerational, multiracial cabinet that I think will bring in a new narrative for people’s experiences of what America really looks like.”
This America, Nunes added, is one that has been guilty of focusing on what’s working well for men in considering whether they’ll be able to support their families, when women are often the ones holding those roles.
We have to consider, she said, “how this is disadvantaging women who are primary caregivers, single parents, a lot of times head of the household, whether you want to acknowledge that or not…and sometimes the ones that are making the most money in their homes, whether you want to acknowledge that or not.”
“It can be more impacting to a family than we want to acknowledge so we have to do our best to ensure that there is equality and resources and there’s equality in making sure we’re taking care of women in the services that we’re providing,” Nunes said. “America needs to wake up and see exactly how we are treating women in this country and it’s time to make some serious changes and adjustments.”