Work

The COVID Economy Is Probably Even Worse for Women Than It Looks

Unemployment statistics don’t tell the whole story.

A mom comforts her toddler who is crying in front of a laptop after a livestream meetup ends
Reuters/Caitlin Ochs

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There are these numbers that I can’t get out of my mind about how women are getting crushed in the COVID economy. Women have lost over 12 million jobs since February, more than 150,000 of them in December alone. We’ve lost jobs in the service sector, the hospitality industry. Ninety percent of civil servants who lost their jobs in December were women. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to sociologist Jess Calarco, who’s been doing a study following hundreds of mothers since 2018, about how we got here and why it will be hard to fix—even with an infusion of cash from Washington. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Jess Calarco: On average, men have gained jobs in December, as opposed to women, who have disproportionately continued to lose jobs. And as this pandemic has continued, we have focused on reopening the economy to the extent that that will get men and especially relatively affluent white men back to work, making sure that we are reopening factories, for example manufacturing, as opposed to service sector industries.

We’re certainly not doing much to support many of the small businesses that often do employ women, especially in the service sector, jobs like hairdressers and stylists, jobs like hotel cleaners, jobs like food service workers. And those are disproportionately done by women and especially low-income women of color. That’s what a lot of the jobs numbers that we see publicized are talking about, those women who are being pushed into unemployment because of the way that the pandemic has affected what types of labor are safest and that people are utilizing. I think what those numbers often underplay, though, are a lot of other patterns that are simultaneously happening in the economy and that are also making things much more difficult for women in the workforce.

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Mary Harris: Like what?

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For example, mothers who are effectively being pushed out of the workforce because they now have to combine or find some way to provide full-time care or instruction for their children while also keeping their jobs. The tension around that is pushing many women to decide to leave the workforce.

So there’s one layer of job loss happening, and then underneath it there’s like a whole other layer that doesn’t come across in those brutal numbers every month.

Exactly. When we calculate unemployment statistics, we focus on people who are not in the workforce but are actively looking for work. Many of these women that are being pushed out of the workforce not because their jobs have gone away, but because they can no longer do their jobs—they’re not looking for work right now because they can’t look for work right now. And so those mothers aren’t counted in the unemployment statistics in the same way.

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So it’s even worse than we think it is?

I would say yes. Because even on top of those mothers who’ve been pushed out of the workforce, there’s also the women who are finding ways to continue working either full time or part time while providing all of that extra care at home. And even though those women might still be employed, they’re certainly facing setbacks in their careers, in their ability to compete with co-workers who don’t have the same caregiving responsibilities and who may be able to take on that extra work assignment or work the full 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week to get things done and look like the ideal worker.

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The mothers that I’ve talked to talk about feeling like failures as both workers and as mothers. They’re saying, “Yes, I’m still employed, but I can’t do my job well and I can’t be the kind of mother that I want to be, so I just feel like a failure all the time.”

When a mom leaves the workforce, that can seem like a very individual decision, and it does make a kind of sense. But you see it from a different perspective, that the whole reason the mom is going to make that decision is because of the incentive structure all around her. As you put it, “in the U.S., most of us aren’t taught to use our sociological imaginations.” Can you explain that?

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So the sociological imagination is a concept from sociologist C. Wright Mills, which is getting at this idea that people’s lives are shaped by social forces that we’re not always fully aware of and that we often take for granted because we’re in them, and because we are so in them that we see them as normal. A sociological imagination is about seeing those social forces, seeing that our lives and our outcomes and other people’s lives and outcomes are shaped not only by our individual choices, but by these larger forces, things like capitalism and racism and sexism and the incentives that those systems create that then provide the context in which we can actually make choices, and oftentimes put constraints around or different incentives on the kinds of choices that we can actually make.

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In the case of the pandemic and women’s employment and the decisions that couples are making, it’s so easy for women especially to blame themselves. The rhetoric that exists in our society, the up-by-your-bootstraps self-help book culture that tells women especially that if they just follow this 17-step plan, they can fix their relationships or have it all in their careers or be happy or have happy kids—what that ignores is the huge structural forces that often limit people’s ability to have it all and to be successful and blames women and leaves women blaming themselves when they’re not able to have those kinds of outcomes that they desire.

A lot of what I’ve read about women and the economy and COVID encourages us to think about the women who are choosing to leave the workforce as pretty separate from the women who are being forced out of the workforce. But when you look at it through the lens you’re talking about, you realize that those two kinds of women are actually tied together and are making decisions or having decisions forced on them for some of the same reasons.

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Absolutely. And I think it’s all linked to the devaluing of labor that we see as feminine labor, especially caregiving labor. In this country we do not, by policy, pay women to stay home after childbirth. Many other countries do provide or ensure paid leave for women following childbirth. In the U.S. the most we do for women, at least on a broad policy level, is to guarantee unpaid leave, and that doesn’t even apply to all women. So that’s one example of a direct devaluing of feminized, caregiving labor. But that extends to other parts of the economy as well. Child care workers, for example, are among the lowest-paid workers in our economy, despite the fact that the work they do allows so many other people in the workforce to be able to stay employed and to make more money than those child care workers are able to earn for themselves. Teachers are another great example.

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Research shows that as any profession becomes primarily women, the income relative to other similar professions goes down. That’s happened to a number of different types of jobs in our economy throughout history. It speaks directly to this idea that we systematically devalue women’s labor, whether that’s labor that happens in the home or labor that happens in the workforce. … And when we say that women are being pushed out of the workforce because they can’t simultaneously care for their children and be these ideal workers, we’re devaluing the cost of that labor, of providing child care, providing full-time care for children or for elderly family members or sick family members, in a way that is disproportionately impacting women.

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I think about one big experiment we tried in this country to make women’s lives better: During World War II, the U.S. government provided paid child care that allowed women to work. It was a short-lived program, put in place to allow men to leave the workforce and fight. It was also a big, if brief, restructuring of the social safety net. But it seems you’re not optimistic that U.S. policymakers are ready to try anything so bold again just because the pandemic has scrambled our lives.

When push comes to shove, we have almost always in our history chosen to prioritize the employment of men and especially white men over women’s employment.

In the wake of World War II, in Europe, where they really needed everyone to stay in the workforce and where they really needed women to continue working because of the destruction to the economy and the destruction to their society, they provided all of these safety net programs, paid maternity leave, paid child care, affordable child care, that made it possible for women to stay in the workforce. Whereas here we didn’t need women working for the economy and so we actively pushed women back home. And arguably, it’s not entirely clear that we need the full employment that we had before, at least from the perspective of policymakers. So I’m very worried that because of the indicators that we use to determine the health of our nation’s economy, that tells us that we don’t actually need women in the workforce and that we don’t actually need to invest in the kinds of policies that would make it possible for women to return to jobs that they’ve lost during the pandemic. And I’m concerned that because of the likely pushback in our highly polarized system, the policies that we end up with will be half measures that some in our legislature can point to as successes, that ultimately fail to provide the kind of support that women especially actually need.

You’ve seen women often blaming themselves for whatever binds they were finding themselves in. It’s what we do, and it’s what we’ve been taught to do. These cultural biases—it’s just very hard to put a policy in place that will shift them.

Yeah. I think then we have to think about the structure of incentives. Sometimes you can change culture by changing incentives. When we provide affordable child care, for example, women are much more likely to go back to work, women’s workforce participation increases substantially—essentially, when we make it lower-cost for women to go back to work.

In terms of men, the more that we can make sure that things like child care worker jobs and teacher jobs are paid at a level that it’s not just considered women’s work—because those women are expected to have a husband who can provide a salary that they could actually live on—but that men would be interested in doing those jobs as well. And the more that we can reduce the stigma around men doing care work—I think those things have to go along with those kinds of pushes to make sure that this isn’t just reinforcing the kinds of unequal divisions of labor that we see in our society right now.

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The one piece of this that I am hopeful about is that these conversations are happening and that there is this seemingly growing recognition among women that this problem is much bigger than their individual lives. Because I think one of the key problems is that because our society is so deeply unequal economically and racially, the women who have the most power and resources to actually push for change have the least incentive to do so because of how they benefit from the status quo. Even if they’re hurting right now, they’re hurting far less than many others, and there’s often the fear that if they work toward social safety net programs or changes in policy that would benefit others, it would benefit others more than themselves or might set them back, relatively speaking, to other people. And so I think the more that we can inspire collective rage and push women not only to feel angry for themselves but for other women, and especially for other women who may be facing more hardship than themselves, I think that’s where there’s real hope for the possibility of change.

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