As the Economy Tanks, Women are Hit Hardest

Women are bearing the brunt of unemployment in the current downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Women account for 55% of the 20.5 million who lost their jobs in April. The unemployment rate for adult women quintupled to 15.5% in April, an all-time high, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) by global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. This period could be known as a “she-cession” because of its effect on female employees, according to one workplace authority.

“The first wave of job losses has hit industries primarily employing women, including food service, childcare, retail, personal care, office assistance, and hospitality, where working from home is not an option. This differs from the Great Recession, during which the vast majority of job losses were among men,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior VP of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

A Look Back at the Great Recession Job Loss Gender-Gap

During the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009), 74% of lost jobs were held by men. Men lost 6 million jobs and women lost 2.7 million jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The hardest-hit professions were in manufacturing and construction, traditionally male-dominated industries.

In the current downturn, women account for 49% of the overall U.S. workforce, but 55% of the job losses in April. In leisure and hospitality, women make up 52% of the workforce, but 54% of the April job losses; in education and health services, 77% of the workforce and 83% of the losses; and in retail, 48% of the workforce and 61% of the losses.

“It may take a long time before consumers are confident enough, both in their physical health and their financial health, to spend in these sectors again, potentially making many of these jobs obsolete,” he added.
In fact, the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago estimates that 42% of current layoffs will result in permanent job losses. The jobs gained since the Great Recession have already been wiped out in a few weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Industries with the Greatest Job Loss in 2020

According to the BLS, in April there were 7.7 million jobs lost in the leisure and hospitality industry; three-quarters of those were in food service and drinking establishments. Employment in arts and entertainment was down 1.3 million jobs, education and health services 1.4 million (especially in dental offices), and professional and business services 2.2 million, including 842,000 jobs in temporary services. During this recession, manufacturing employment is down 1.3 million jobs and construction is down 975,000.

Retail, which has seen the highest number of job cuts on record this year, according to Challenger tracking, has seen thousands of stores close in recent weeks. Retailers have announced 114,327 job cuts through April 2020, the highest annual total on record. It shatters the previous high of 100,518 cuts announced by retailers in all of 2003. Victoria’s Secret, owned by L Brands, announced it is closing 250 stores; J.C. Penney is closing 240 stores as part of its bankruptcy plan; and Pier 1 Imports is closing all remaining 540 stores. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association estimates that 15% of restaurants in the U.S. have or will close permanently.


Particularly hard hit this time are women between the ages of 20 and 24, as well as women of color. According to the National Women’s Law Center reporting to the BLS, the unemployment rate in April for women 20-24 was 28%, 16.4% for black women, and 20.2% for Latinas.

Adding to the dire situation is that many of these lost jobs were low-paying. The National Women’s Law Center reports women are more likely to work in low-wage occupations that pay $11 per hour or less, including childcare workers, restaurant servers, maids, and cashiers. Of the 23 million workers in low-wage workforces, two-thirds of them are women. Even in these jobs, women typically make 15% less than men doing the same work.

More Family Challenges Fall to Women

Despite some of the businesses in these industries reopening, female employees may not be able to re-enter the job market due to childcare concerns. In a survey of professionals ages 18 to 74 conducted by YouGov for USA Today and LinkedIn, women continue to be responsible for most parenting responsibilities during the pandemic. The survey reported that 57% of men said childcare duties were being split equally in their homes, but only 45% of women agreed; 66% of women said they were primarily responsible for remote learning for their children in their homes during workdays.

“As long as schools and childcare operators remain closed or workers do not feel safe sending their children back to these facilities, employees will have an extremely challenging time balancing childcare and work and will not be able to go back into an office. It’s an incredibly difficult choice for parents, and more likely than not, they’ll choose the health and safety of their families,” Challenger said.

Some Companies Are Hiring

While there have been millions of job losses, not every company is laying off workers. For every ten layoffs, there have been three new hires by such companies as Amazon, Walmart, and CVS, according to the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

“Grocery and warehouse stores are thriving, but they tend to offer low wages, and right now, these positions come with an atypically high level of risk. Many of these companies are offering hazard pay and bonuses to attract workers,” Challenger said.

“Some companies are hiring for remote workers with similar skill sets or whose skills could easily transfer. These include call center representatives and telehealth workers, copy writers and social media specialists, as well as roles in account management, data entry, and customer experience. If workers can land these jobs and build new skill sets, perhaps through taking online courses toward a degree or certification, they will be in a good position when the economy recovers,” he added.


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