Michelle Quist: Pandemic pulls the economy into a ‘shecession’

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "'Working' From Home," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, April 12, 2020.

I took the kids on an adventure this weekend. We drove south to the red rocks and endless vistas of Capitol Reef, over Boulder Mountain and through Escalante on Scenic Byway 12. We drove down dirt roads and went searching for waterfalls and examined caterpillar nests in cottonwood trees.

We didn’t answer emails or join Zoom calls or fight about school assignments that somehow didn’t get submitted online. Mommy needed a break.

It’s no big surprise that a pandemic, where work and schools are closed and families shelter at home, will have an outsized effect on women. But the starkness of that difference is surprising.

A recent NPR series noted that women’s unemployment rates spiked 2.7 points higher than men’s in April. At the beginning of the year, there were “slightly more women on American nonfarm payrolls than men.” And the spike in women’s unemployment can’t be explained by a recession. “During every recession since 1981, men’s unemployment has shot up past women’s.”

One reason for the disparity cited in a recent paper by professors of economics at Northwestern University is that the industries suffering are those with high female employment, like restaurants, hotels and other similar service industries. Another factor, of course, is childcare.

The NPR series recognized that “Even in families with both parents working full-time, women are far more likely than men to manage schedules and activities, and to take care of kids when sick.” And many are trying to work from home at the same time. There are only so many hours in the day.

C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said, “We should go ahead and call this a ‘shecession.’” Women accounted for 55% of the jobs lost in April.

Women of color fare even worse. African Americans and Latinos have been ever more affected by the unemployment caused by the pandemic, and many minority women work in industries deemed essential and are therefore at higher risk of contracting the illness.

Even more, “Women are far more likely to than men to be a single parent, meaning that a lack of childcare leaves them with no options.”

This forced unemployment will have effects that last longer than the shelter-at-home guidelines, including an even wider gender wage gap.

Another example of the pandemic’s differing effects on women has been seen in academia. Female academics are submitting fewer papers for publication, in some cases up to 50 percent more productivity loss. It’s hard to write a paper (or a newspaper column!) while managing at-home learning for reluctant adolescents and needy toddlers.

There are also increased domestic violence incidents. Utah County has seen a 75% increase in domestic violence calls. Salt Lake County has seen a 21% increase in cases compared with the same period last year.

Now, as we look to a summer with no camps, concerts or vacations (other than camping), and a real and prolonged risk of sickness through COVID-19, it’s hard to be hopeful, or optimistic, or anything other than plain depressed.

But that’s exactly what many people are – hopeful, optimistic and adapting to their new circumstances. I mean, at least online school will be over for a few months!

Our new reality offers opportunities to slow down and slough off unimportant tasks. And maybe, we can start to shift the institutional and social tendencies to let household emergencies fall mostly on women’s shoulders. If there are two working adults at home, both should share equally in the household and childcare duties. There really is no excuse.

I’ve read the articles and social media posts about becoming our best selves as we spend time at home. I’ve also read the posts that allow for just surviving this strange time. I think I’m leaning toward the just surviving crowd. I won’t be writing my “Moby Dick.” My stack of books on my nightstand is just as high as it was in March. In fact, I’m ready to close our home school for good and let the kids run wild with iPads and Kindles and whatever else they can find to amuse themselves while I try to get some work done. Or just sleep.

Which is why every few weeks we’re going to pack up the car and just drive.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.