Susan Madsen: There is nothing pretty about the ‘Pink Recession’

This Pat Bagley cartoon appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.

We are living in a time of massive uncertainty. How risky would it be to have Thanksgiving with my elderly mother? Will any of the classes I teach next semester be in person? When will a vaccine be ready?

While there is much we don’t know, there is one thing I am sure about: Women are leaving the workforce in distressingly high numbers.

This is not good for individuals, families, communities or the economy at large.

The obvious reason for the new “Pink Recession,” as it is being called, is COVID-19. In September, 1.1 million workers left the labor force. Of that group, 865,000 were women. That’s four times the rate of men. Why such a disparity?

First, the pandemic and resulting recession have hit the industries that employ women more than men, such as education, food, retail, health care and hospitality. And, to add insult to injury, in those industries that are laying people off, women lose their jobs more often than men. In retail, for example, women make up 48% of the workforce but 61% of those let go or furloughed. Plus, only 22% of women are in jobs that let them work from home, compared to 28% of men.

Second, child care. It’s no coincidence that there was a mass exodus from the workforce in September, the same month that kids started school again. Our research shows that mothers are disproportionately in charge of child care, monitoring virtual learning and household work. Whether they left work altogether or reduced their hours, women tend to take the hit for the family when there are child care issues.

One report put a price tag on the cost of this trade-off: $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity. Not to mention longer-term impacts like future earnings and retirement savings.

Finally, the situation is compounded for women because they were already at a disadvantage, especially in Utah. Our studies show that a woman earns approximately 71 cents per dollar that a man earns and, according to the American Association of University Women, we have the nation’s fourth-largest gender wage gap for year-round full-time workers.

Our studies also show that Utah women perform unpaid care work at higher rates than the national average. And remember that this is not just child care, but looking after the elderly, a job that has increased during the pandemic as families prefer to reduce the number of people whom their loved ones come in contact with. In an attempt to reduce her exposure, a friend of mine has taken over many jobs for her older mother that used to be farmed out. While my friend is glad to help her mother stay safe, it has meant less time for her professional work.

The bottom line is this: The problems this pandemic reveals are not new. But it is putting a spotlight on issues of gender equality that we have ignored all too often in the past. The consequences of a reduced presence of women in the workforce are far reaching.

Aside from the personal and economic factors I’ve mentioned, we risk losing ground in our progress toward gender diversity and providing role models for girls and women making their way. It’s hard to be what you can’t see.

So what can be done? Businesses should be incentivized to implement family-friendly policies. Tax credits, paid family care leave and flexible working arrangements are a few things that can support Utah’s lowest wage workers and promote job retention, which is good for employees, employers and the economy.

We have to get creative and find ways to better support the women who are making hard choices to support their families. We ask enough of them already. It’s time we show care to the caretakers.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D. is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.