Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To receive top news in your inbox every weekday morning, subscribe to our Top Stories newsletter.
Women in the U.S. are seeing disproportionate effects of the economic downturn during the coronavirus pandemic compared to men, reports show, and Utah is no exception.
“The biggest factor is that women are more likely to be concentrated in the service sector,” which has been particularly hard hit, said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). And with schools closed and day care centers struggling to stay open, the burden of child care typically falls on women. They “have a difficult choice” of continuing to earn or caring for their family.
Utah women have filed the majority of the new unemployment claims since mid-March, when Gov. Gary Herbert shut down schools and restaurants, according to the Department of Workforce Services. Women have made up between 52.8% and 58.4% of claims from the week that ended March 21 to the week that ended April 11.
Before that time period, men filed 57.8% to 61.8% of claims the first two weeks of March.
Women filed the majority of new unemployment claims in at least 17 states, including Utah, in the weeks after governors enacted closures to curb the spread of the virus, according to an analysis from The Fuller Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on issues that impact women.
Nationally, women have made up nearly 60% of job losses and have outnumbered men’s losses in almost all sectors of the economy, a report from IWPR shows.
In previous recessions, men’s employment was affected more severely than women’s employment, according to a report titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality” released in March. The social distancing measures and closures of schools and day care centers during the spread of COVID-19, though, have placed more of the burden on women, especially single, working mothers, the report states.
“The wage gap, or wage inequality, is a really critical issue,” Mason said, “especially in moments like this.”
The numbers associated with the gender wage gap — how Utah women earn 70 cents per dollar earned by men, while women nationally earn 80 cents per dollar — are often discussed, but times like this show how “women have less money in their pockets to ride out an economic storm or downturn,” she said.
Women of color, who face an even larger wage gap, and lower-wage workers are more likely to be in the service industry that’s losing jobs and could especially be affected, she said.
Economists who wrote “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality” suggest there could be a couple of positive longer-term effects from the pandemic, though, “which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market.”
Changes to social norms “often come through one-time shocks,” said one of the authors, Matthias Doepke, HSBC research professor in the economics department at Northwestern University. During World War II, millions of women entered the labor force, which “had a large and persistent effect on female employment.”
With the spread of COVID-19, businesses are adopting more flexible work arrangements with telecommuting and work-from-home options, “which are likely to persist,” according to the report. “Given that mothers currently carry a disproportionate burden in combining work and child care duties, they stand to benefit relatively more than men from these changes.”
During COVID-19, many fathers are now shouldering additional child care and home-schooling responsibilities, “which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor” in these tasks, according to the report.
Mason said more flexible work options in the future seem more likely than a change in gender norms. “I’m less optimistic about that,” she said, “because it would really require a seismic cultural shift for us, in terms of our thinking about men and women and their roles and expectations.”
She added, though, “We find ourselves in a really extraordinary moment. … The pandemic has revealed cracks in our economic system and our health care system and some things that were not working well.” It “provides an opportunity,” she said, “to find ways to make the economy work for more people.”
In the coming weeks, women will probably struggle to reenter the workforce after these large losses, Doepke said. The gender wage gap will also likely increase “because it will take time for women to get back where they were before.”
Just because stay-at-home-orders are lifted doesn’t mean people will be able to go back to work, especially if they’re still struggling with child care, Mason said. But it’s important, she added, to think about how women and families are affected when drafting policy plans to help people recover.