Before the virus, women had been making major strides in the labor market and in closing the wage gap.

Participation among women age 25 to 54 peaked in 2000, then dipped after the financial crisis, only to begin accelerating again in 2015 until right before the pandemic. Women earned 82.3 cents of every dollar men did last year, up from 77.8 cents in 2007, Census data show.

At the start of the pandemic, women lost more jobs than men, particularly in industries like hospitality and other services with high female employment.

As states reopened, the female unemployment rate has improved, down from a peak of 15.5% in April, the first double-digit reading on record. But at the same time, men’s jobless rate remains lower.

Job losses have been especially dire for women of color, whose unemployment rates had fallen closer to that of White women before the pandemic. Unemployment for Hispanic women surged to 20.2% in April, compared with 4.9% in February. Black women actually saw their worst jobless rate since the 1980s -- 16.5% -- in May, even though other groups were beginning to see an improvement by that time.

That’s a reverse of what’s happened in prior recessions, according to Northwestern’s Doepke. Since job losses typically fall disproportionately on men in recessions, including the previous downturn, women can act as a “shock absorber” -- increasing hours or joining the labor force to offset the household’s income declines, Doepke said.

Women Dropping Out
This time around, women are increasingly dropping out of the labor market altogether as more women are losing or quitting their jobs “because they realize that children come first,” San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly said in a virtual webinar earlier this month.

Nearly 7 million Americans aren’t employed because they have to take care of children, according to a Census survey earlier this month.

Since women earn less than men on average, it’s often the mother who steps back. Women lose valuable skills during the time they aren’t working, which can make finding a job in the future harder and damage family finances, according to Center for American Progress analyst Malik.

Flexibility At A Cost
The rise in remote work during the pandemic could boost women’s participation but at the same time may jeopardize promotion and pay prospects, said Wells Fargo & Co. senior economist Sarah House.

“Flexibility comes at a cost,” House said. “You’re not in the room.”

Finding childcare is poised to continue to be difficult as the industry itself has faced unprecedented challenges including closures and job losses, Malik said. Roughly 94% of child day care industry jobs are held by women, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

Although policy makers remain at a standstill in talks about more stimulus, House Democrats have proposed legislation that would help fund schools and childcare centers during the pandemic as well as give some parents temporary paid leave.

“We just cannot get out of this -- the hole that we’re in -- in any reasonable way, without doing huge scarring, without a much stronger care infrastructure,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

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