Women’s jobs fell first, fastest. What else did pandemic show?

In Episode 1 of our podcast “Stronger,” we look at what working women lost to the pandemic – and where new opportunities for progress might be. 

Women, Work, and the Pandemic

Loading the player...
Photos: Ann Hermes and Samantha Laine Perfas, photo illustration: Jacob Turcotte

Millions of women, especially women of color, left the U.S. workforce during the pandemic. The reasons ranged from layoffs to burnout to the pressures of caring for children or other family members. Among the losses, by some accounts, is a generation’s worth of progress in women’s participation in the workforce. 

But it’s more than sheer numbers. “What the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on is all the weak points in our system that just depend on women sacrificing, holding it together,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center.

In the first episode of our new podcast, “Stronger,” we look at what the pandemic’s economic impact could mean for working women long term. We also examine what we can learn from this unprecedented year – about women’s value to society, and the steps we can take to create more equitable homes and workplaces. 

“We’re in this space where we are just rethinking how we work and when we work,” says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We’re starting to see those conversations amplified by the experiences of women during the pandemic.”

Episode transcript

Emily Martin: The pandemic has hit women particularly hard.

Jess Huang: One in 4 women have considered leaving the workforce.

C. Nicole Mason: – and all those jobs were lost by women, particularly women of color.  

Yarleny Roa-Dugan: We’re put in there to sacrifice ourselves for the better good of everybody else. 

Christine Hudman Pardy: Like, you just feel targeted. It’s like, “You can’t work.” 

Tonya Walls: We are at a tipping point, I think, in our country. 

 [Music]

Jessica Mendoza: The pandemic has done a real number on our workforce. But no demographic has been more affected than women. They’ve lost the most jobs, faced the most burnout. And we’ve leaned on them heavily to get us through the past year-plus.  

Samantha Laine Perfas: And even though the U.S. is now recovering some of those losses, we still need to process the collective trauma that is COVID-19. 

Mendoza: In this podcast, we’ll hear from women about their pandemic experience: what they’ve lost – and how they’re winning it back.

[Music]

Mendoza: I’m Jessica Mendoza. 

Laine Perfas: And I’m Samantha Laine Perfas. We’re reporters for The Christian Science Monitor. This is Stronger.

[Music]

Laine Perfas: We got to know six women from different walks of life for this series. Through their stories, we understood how hard this year has been for women, in ways familiar and unexpected. But we also saw how strong they are, and where they see hope for themselves and their families as we move toward post-pandemic life in the US. 

Mendoza: We’re excited to share their stories with you in our next episodes. But first, we thought it was important to talk about how we got here. So in this episode, we lay out what went down for women in 2020 and where we are today. 

[Music]

Mason: At the beginning of 2020, we were celebrating this milestone – the fact that women were more than 50 percent of the labor force.

Laine Perfas: That’s C. Nicole Mason. She’s the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  

Mason: And then the pandemic hits. And by March, all those gains had been all but wiped out. More than 11 million women fell out of the workforce over the first two months of the pandemic. Women lost jobs at a rate four times more than men. And that was because women were concentrated in the hardest hit sectors –

Mendoza: – leisure and hospitality, education, and service and retail. 

Laine Perfas: These are sectors that often require workers to come in, to show up in person. And a lot of the jobs in these sectors tend to be lower paid, with less stability and fewer benefits. 

Emily Martin: We’ve seen lots of progress in our collective understanding of women’s competence and women’s leadership. 

Laine Perfas: That’s Emily Martin, the vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. They do a lot of research on women in the labor force.  

Martin: But we also do see women continuing to be overrepresented in lower paid occupations and industries, in part because we continue to assign a lower value to work women do. 

Mendoza: When you combine all that with a pandemic that forces people to stop face-to-face interactions? It only makes sense that those jobs – women’s jobs – were the ones that disappeared first and fastest.   

Martin: We have lost a generation of progress in women’s workforce participation. Since March 2020, over 2.3 million women have left the workforce entirely. Right now, 57 percent of adult women are either working or looking for work. That is the lowest level we’ve seen since 1988. 

Mendoza: That’s basically our whole lifetimes. 

Laine Perfas: I mean, literally, Jess, you were born in 1988, and I was born shortly after. 

Mendoza: It’s crazy! But seriously – it’s a real issue. For one thing, something like 40 percent of mothers were either the only ones making money, or the breadwinners, in their families. 

Martin: Families depend on women’s income. It is the minority of families where women are just sort of working for extras. 

Mendoza: At the same time, women were still in charge of most of the caregiving work at home. 

Laine Perfas: For some, it’s taking care of super young kids who aren’t in school. Others, they had to manage remote learning. And then others had older relatives who also needed care.

Mason: So before the pandemic, women were already responsible for 30 percent more of care taking responsibilities in families.

Laine Perfas: That’s C. Nicole Mason again.

Mason: That doubled or tripled during the pandemic, in addition to having to maintain full time work. For some women who were not able to work remotely, really having to make the tough decision between work and taking care of their family. The expectation is that women would figure it out. 

Mendoza: This was true for most women, across the board. But there were disparities based on race and ethnicity, too. The data changes a bit with every new jobs report. But in general, the unemployment rate for white women has stayed lower than the rates for both Black and Latina workers. Here’s Emily Martin again:

Martin: The face of job loss in this recession has been a woman’s face and probably a woman of color, again, because this recession has really hit low-paid jobs where Black women, Latinas, Native women, are overrepresented.

[Music]

Mendoza: Of course, things have been getting better over the past few months. Job numbers are going up, restaurants and theaters are back in business – not as many as before, maybe, but they’re there. People are traveling like crazy. 

Laine Perfas: But the pandemic had other effects that haven’t gone away. This was a really traumatic year for so many people, not just women. And we can’t just march forward, pretending it never happened. Instead we should be asking: What have we learned?

Martin: What the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on is all the weak points in our system that just depend on women sacrificing, holding it together, doing without, giving up their job, not eating lunch so their kids can eat. That is what the pandemic has made clear: how we depend on all of those women making individual sacrifices in their lives.

Mendoza: What do we lose as a country when we lose women from the workforce at the rates that we’ve been seeing, like even if – even if we were able to get back those numbers, what have we lost this past year?

Martin: Well, employers have lost a lot of expertise and talent. You know, when we set up our systems in a way that makes it hard for folks who have a lot to offer on the job, that makes it really hard for them to work, then employers lose. 

We also lose some of the gains that have been so important in recent decades in our collective imagination and understanding of what it is that women do. In our collective imagination and understanding of women as leaders and as talented people who do a lot more than the important work of caring for families.

You know, these gains were hard-fought and important for all of us, both for the stability and financial security of individual families, but also for the broader culture.

[Music]

Mendoza: And this is why we did this series: To understand what women have experienced throughout this pandemic on a personal level. But also to think through what we need to do as a society to better support and value women. Because doing that makes it better for all of us. And if there is a silver lining to any of this, it’s that some of that thinking is already starting to happen. Here’s C. Nicole Mason again: 

Mason: What’s been amazing about this moment is that it’s really provided us [space] to have some conversations that many of us, many working women, were having in private and internalizing. And they’ve become public conversations, that’s just like: “Why are we thinking about it this way instead of this way?”

Laine Perfas: Facing these issues head on is challenging, for sure, but doing so collectively can lead to real change in a way that doesn’t rely on individual women just “holding it all together.”

Mason: There’s something wrong with a system where I can’t be successful in my career or I have to make the choice between my career and taking care of a family. You know, I’ve been doing this work for two decades and women before me have been doing this work for much longer. But I want it to be different for my daughter and my son.

Hopefully we can knock down these barriers once and for all. And so that’s what this moment represents for me, and I think all of us who are on the front lines right now.  

[Music]

Mendoza: So. In the coming episodes, you’ll hear from each of the women we met. They all work in different industries. primarily the ones that we mentioned before – the ones that were most affected. 

Laine Perfas: They also all live in Las Vegas. The economy there was really devastated by the pandemic. 

Mendoza: We spent time with them on Zoom and in person over the past few months. And they were such a great reminder that women are awesome. And awesome women are everywhere. 

Laine Perfas: We hope you’ll join us in this series. In our next episode, it’s showtime. 

Mendoza: We’ll meet Christine Hudman Pardy, a performer, wife, mother…

Laine Perfas: And dreamer extraordinaire! 

Hudman Pardy: My show ran here for 15 years, I mean, it was like the number one show in Vegas. But what do you do when the show closes? You have to be more than the girl who is just the lead on that show. You have to figure that out: when the show closes, the best part of you is still alive and vibrant.

Laine Perfas: We can’t wait for you to meet her. If you’re excited for this series, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes by searching for “Stronger” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/stronger.  

Mendoza: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza. 

Laine Perfas: And me, Samantha Laine Perfas.

Mendoza: Edited by Clay Collins and Mark Trumbull. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

[Music]

Laine Perfas: So Jess, what did you love about reporting this whole series?

Mendoza: I mean, the pets were pretty ridiculous. 

Mendoza: What is – what is that squeaking sound? 

Jaelynn Ciballos: Sorry, it’s the birds! We have birds in our house.

Laine Perfas: I also loved all the kiddos – 

Leya Roa-Dugan: Baby Babble

Yarleny Roa-Dugan: She’s very cute. She’s playing with her – [shows toy puppies]  

Laine Perfas: Oh, Paw Patrol! That’s so cute. 

Mendoza: There were also a lot of great Zoom bloopers – 

Hudman Pardy: I am also noticing that I’m “Phyllis” on this thing and wondering if I need to change that or if it really matters.  

Laine Perfas: Who am I? 

Laine Perfas: Again, you can find “Stronger” wherever you get your podcasts or visit csmonitor.com/stronger.

END