A year ago, a rare thing happened to American women.
For three months, they held more jobs than men in the US economy — something that had only occurred one other time in history, during a short period in 2009 and early 2010.
Sure, there were still many other gender gaps: women were more likely than men to work part-time, for example, because of caregiving responsibilities at home, and even among full-time workers, they earned on average only 81 cents for every dollar of their male peers.
Nevertheless, women were making gradual gains.
The pandemic quickly changed that story. And now, it just got worse.
According to new data released Friday, employers cut 140,000 jobs in December, signaling that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is backtracking. Digging deeper into the data also reveals a shocking gender gap: Women accounted for all the job losses, losing 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000.
Meanwhile, a separate survey of households, which includes self-employed workers, showed an even wider gender disparity. It also highlighted another painful reality: Blacks and Latinas lost jobs in December, while White women made significant gains.
These are net numbers, which can mask some of the underlying churn in the labor market. Of course many men lost their jobs in December, too — but when taken together as a group, they came out ahead, whereas women fell behind.
Economists often warn against reading too much into a single month, but December’s job losses capped off an already awful year for working women — particularly women of color.
Black and Latina women disproportionately work in some of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic, often in roles that lack paid sick leave and the ability to work from home. As schools and day cares closed, many were forced to make hard trade-offs between work and parenting.
“Those sectors are less likely to have flexibility, so when employers are inflexible or women can’t come to work because of caregiving responsibilities — they have to exit the workforce,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Overall, women are still down 5.4 million jobs from February, before the pandemic began, as compared to 4.4 million job losses for men. They started 2020 on roughly equal footing, with women holding 50.03% of jobs, but ended it holding 860,000 fewer jobs than their male peers.
That gap is in large part due to steep job losses in three sectors: education — which remains a female-dominated industry — hospitality and retail, particularly clothing and accessories stores. All of these industries have been hammered by the pandemic.
“We don’t have the pandemic under control. Schools and day cares are still closing, and we know that’s what’s impacting women’s ability to reenter the workforce and sustain jobs,” Mason said.
In December, restaurants and bars cut the most jobs by far, and part-time workers were hit especially hard.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not release seasonally-adjusted unemployment rates for women of other racial or ethnic identities.
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