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‘If We Had a Panic Button, We’d be Hitting it.’ Women Are Exiting the Labor Force En Masse—And That’s Bad For Everyone

6 minute read

The United States is in the midst of a crushing economic recession, COVID-19 infection rates are spiking, and thousands of schools and childcare facilities have yet to reopen in-person classrooms. The group bearing the brunt of this torrent of bad news? Women.

Between August and September, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics September jobs report. In the same time period, just 216,000 men exited the workforce. Meanwhile, one in four women are considering reducing work hours, moving to part-time roles, switching to less demanding jobs, taking leaves of absence from work, or stepping away from the workforce altogether, according to an annual Women in the Workplace study published in September by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In.

“If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” says Rachel Thomas, the CEO of Lean In, a gender equity advocacy group co-founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. “We have never seen numbers like these.”

In the absence of analogy, it’s far too early to tell what the impact of this unequal exodus will be, since we’re still in the midst of it. But economic and business sector analysts agree it’s not going to be good: The progress towards gender pay equity, still incomplete, will certainly stall if not fall backwards. The number of women who earn C-suite roles may also decrease, hurting the women who miss out on them—while also marring the companies they work for. Research shows companies with heterogeneity tend to have better balance sheets than their competitors. All of these compounding factors serve to quash economic recovery for everyone.

“There’s no historic parallel for what’s happening here for women,” says Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We have nothing to compare it to: not to the 2008 recession or the Great Depression.”

Some of those jarring numbers can be attributed to the type of jobs that women often hold. Female-dominated industries, including healthcare, education, elder care, service, and hospitality, have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-induced recession. When the pandemic first overwhelmed the U.S. in March and April, hospitals began furloughing nurses and medical assistants who primarily worked on elective procedures. Daycares, struggling with plummeting enrollment and skyrocketing overhead costs, laid off 250,000-plus workers. By April, 72% of housekeepers had reported being abandoned by all their clients. Restaurants, which lost all their dine-in business overnight, laid off their servers—70% of which are women.

But layoffs and furloughs only explain part of the picture. Many women are leaving the workforce not because their jobs have vanished but because their support systems have. More than half of U.S. elementary and high school students are now attending online-only classes, according to a recent study by Burbio, a software company that aggregates school and community calendars. And roughly 40% of childcare centers surveyed in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children reported that they were doomed to shutter permanently without significant government assistance—which never materialized.

Without the help of these institutions, the full-time job of caring for and educating kids has fallen disproportionately on women. According to the McKinsey and Lean In report, two times as many working mothers said they worried about their job performance because they were also juggling care-taking responsibilities. Only 44% of mothers polled said that they were splitting household responsibilities equally with their partner since the pandemic started. (Men tend to have a different perception: 70% of fathers polled said they were doing their fair share.) For the one in five mothers who raise children without a live-in co-parent, the challenges are even greater.

Women’s decisions to exit the labor force this year will likely impact their own professional and financial goals for the rest of their lives. It’s an imprecise comparison, but studies done on students who graduate into a recessions and are then either unemployed or forced to take jobs below their qualification levels lose out on earnings compared to students who finished college amid rosier economic circumstances. The losses amount to about 9% initially, and tend not to fully dissipate until about a decade after graduation day.

But women are not the only ones who will suffer. Businesses—and the U.S. economy—will too. A 19-year, 215-company study out of Pepperdine University found a strong correlation between companies hiring women executives and their profitability, resulting in 18-69% boosts for the Fortune 500 firms with the best records of promoting women. “Women are bringing really important skills to the labor market and they are driving all kinds of innovation,” says Melissa Boteach, a National Women’s Law Center vice president. “Firms that are more diverse do better. And we’re leaving people on the sidelines who want to be in the game.”

The U.S. is unique among industrialized nations in the ways it has failed women. Unlike every other industrialized nation, the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave through a permanent and universal federal law, which makes it impossible for some women to care for family members who fall sick or for kids who are suddenly without childcare. The federal government also doesn’t require all companies to provide paid sick leave, which likely resulted in some employees continuing to work when they should have called out ill. “The fact that we had such backwards workplace policies for women in this country made us more vulnerable to the pandemic,” argues Boteach.

The absence of preparation on these fronts will likely depress and delay long-term recovery, economists say. When more people are able to participate in the labor force, economic output, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, increases while the cost of labor decreases. At a more microeconomic level, the Lean In and McKinsey and Co. survey found that mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending 20 hours per week—the equivalent of half a full-time job—on childcare and housework. If this exacerbated double-duty burden results in a large percentage of dual-income families with children opting for one parent to stay home, discretionary consumer spending will suffer, too.

The pandemic has unraveled years’ worth of advancements in creating more equal and diverse workplaces. Out of the six years McKinsey and Lean In have conducted their joint workplace study, male and female attrition rates had always been in tandem. Until now, that is.

“To think that we may lose all the hard-earned progress we’ve seen in the representation of women in a single year, it really has us breathless,” says Thomas, “and we think it should have anyone who’s a leader of an organization breathless, too.”

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com