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Blog Post · March 11, 2021

Multiple Challenges for Women in the COVID-19 Economy

photo - Supermarket Worker Arranging Vegetables and Wearing Mask

After nearly a year since California’s statewide stay-at-home order, controlling the pandemic, reopening schools, and resuming full economic activity are top of mind. This past year has revealed how interrelated these three things are. For women in particular, balancing work, family, and health continues to present unprecedented challenges.

At the onset of the pandemic, unemployment spiked more among women than men. Unemployment reached nearly 19% among women compared to 15% among men last April, despite nearly identical rates at the beginning of 2020. This gap shrunk considerably by the fall, but as COVID surged again in the winter, it appeared to widen in early 2021.

Women are overrepresented in sectors like leisure and hospitality, salons, and personal care that have been hard hit. Overall, women are 11% more likely to work in the hardest-hit sectors than in the workforce overall, and Latinas are especially overrepresented in these sectors.

Women are also overrepresented in frontline work, which has been both critical and dangerous during this pandemic. Women are about 30% more likely to work in frontline sectors than any other, and Black women in particular are overrepresented in frontline work. Maintaining employment in these sectors has been relatively easy, but that employment comes with many health risks.

During the pandemic, families with children have had to balance the health risks of working outside the home, the need for resources to support a family, and the heightened need for at-home caregiving. When making these calculations, women may often be the ones who stop working or work less. Even in normal economic times, 81% of men with children are employed, compared to 59% of women with children (though single mothers are more likely to work and have less flexibility to work less).

Nationally, both men’s and women’s labor force participation rates are about 2 percentage points behind where they were one year ago. But during the worst of the pandemic more women—especially those with young children—left the labor force. Our analysis of Current Population Survey data suggests that married women with children are still less likely to be employed than they were before the pandemic, after accounting for individual factors (like race and age) and other factors affecting the 2021 labor market.

Even once schools and businesses fully reopen, economic recovery will be incomplete until all Californians who would like to work can do so. This may be a long and difficult process for those who have dropped out of the labor force this year—and it will be more challenging if businesses have closed or in-demand skills have changed.

Moreover, this year has made evident that a robust “ecosystem” is necessary for an effective and equitable workforce: reliable access to child and dependent care, job conditions that protect worker health and well-being, and a safety net for those facing unforeseen shocks.

The experience of working women during this pandemic reveals the pressures of work in the modern economy. California has taken important steps to address these pressures—like extending support to businesses and providing direct relief to low-income families. Federal efforts, like tax credits for families with children in the recent stimulus bill, are also projected to substantially ease the burden on families, including parents balancing work and child care costs. Over the long term, identifying the ecosystem investments that support a strong workforce is critical for California’s economic well-being.


child care coronavirus COVID-19 Economic Trends Economy employment gender gap Health & Safety Net jobs Population racial disparities recession underemployment unemployment