The initial job losses of the COVID-19 pandemic were considerably greater for women than for men. Social scientists and economic journalists studied this divide, not just in the U.S. but around the developed world. For example, in October the BBC published a piece discussing the global relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic, work, and gender or family structure, summing up recent arguments and opinions on the subject from around the world.
The two most important and credible hypotheses to explain why job losses differed by gender include the industry mix hypothesis and the childcare hypothesis. The industry mix hypothesis is relatively straightforward: women tend to hold more of the in-person jobs that were made more difficult or less plentiful by the pandemic. For example, women make up the majority of leisure and hospitality employees, despite being a minority of workers overall. The leisure and hospitality industry was disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and therefore, working women were disproportionately affected as well.
The childcare hypothesis is also simple: in families with children, women disproportionately take on caregiving responsibilities at home. Those were made more difficult by as a result of pandemic-related school and daycare closures. The Kaiser Family Foundation has illustrated some of these issues through surveys: 12 percent of women report new caregiving responsibilities, as compared to just 8 percent of men. Almost half of working mothers reported taking time off to deal with school or daycare closures.
In 2020, these pandemic challenges created a clear gender gap in employment, visible in macro level data; women sustained relatively greater job losses than men throughout 2020. However, in recent months, that gap has closed. There is little evidence remaining of a differential impact on employment status by gender or family structure. Rather, all demographics now have similarly subdued employment levels.
While safe reopenings and vaccinations have made considerable progress in solving parents’ and women’s problems, there remains work to be done. First, COVID-19 cases and school closures can still create problems for workers—especially women and parents—at more subtle, intensive margins: that is, while they may retain formal employment, they may not be able to work as much or as well as they would like to under better circumstances. Second, the problems these groups face are still worth solving, even if they have managed to overcome them enough to go to work. Finally, employment for all groups remains below the early-2020 highs, and there is more work to be done to help all Americans return to work.
Family Structure Is No Longer a Significant Driver of COVID-19 Joblessness
Women lost more jobs than men early in the pandemic. For example, at the lows of the April 2020 jobs report, female employment had declined by 18 percent, and male employment 14 percent. This initial shock was driven primarily by business closures, and the greater impact on women likely came from their greater exposure to affected industries and occupations. Since then, both groups have recovered significantly, but women made up more ground than men. As of April 2021, both genders have employment ratios about 5 percent lower than their pre-pandemic levels.
Figure 1. Women Have Caught Up To Men, but Both Genders Have More Ground to Cover
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Parenting status also may no longer have a significant interaction with COVID-19 unemployment. A recent analysis of employment by parenting status, offered by Jason Furman, Melissa Kearney, and Wilson Powell, shows that the impact of parenting on COVID-19 job loss is “negligible.” In fact, by some measures, parents were more likely to retain their jobs than non-parents were.
These results are somewhat surprising, as the difficulties of women and parents in the early pandemic were well-explained and well-documented. However, employment status is only one measure of a multifaceted problem; the COVID-19 pandemic can also make it more difficult for workers to thrive in their jobs, even if they retain those jobs.
Parents are Likely Still Impeded on the Intensive Margins of Work
Economists often measure work in terms of quantity of jobs. This is not the only measure of how much work is done in the economy; it is just the simplest to count. One can simply ask people whether they have a job or not, and compile that into a standardized data set that is easily comparable across months.
However, employment is actually not a simple binary. People can sometimes work more hours, and other times fewer. They can sometimes work with full attention, and other times with divided attention. They can sometimes count on predictable home arrangements that allow them to keep a regular schedule, and other times struggle to arrange for care of family members and children.
These margins matter as well, and while they cannot be measured as easily as headline data, surveys such as the Kaiser Family Foundation’s suggest that parents are having difficulties on these margins. For example, if working parents need to take a day off because a school or daycare is closed, that is a reduction in work—just not one that shows up in employment data. It is likely that these workers are still impeded in reaching their full potential, socializing with coworkers, and building new skills.
Solving Problems is Worthwhile in its Own Right
Another critical point is that many of the difficulties reported by parents are worth alleviating for intrinsic reasons, even if they are not instrumentally useful in increasing formal employment. Data suggest that parents are finding a way to retain employment while also caring for their kids. Making life easier for these currently working parents cannot increase employment, but it is still valuable in its own right.
If someone is, with considerable difficulty, overcoming a problem, one should still consider ways to help them mitigate the problem. School closures from COVID-19 may not be causing elevated unemployment among parents relative to non-parents, but they do have a variety of other downsides: the Joint Economic Committee Social Capital Project identifies a loss of learning and social development for the child, and stress for both parents and children alike.
These are difficult problems, and they can best be helped by continuing the positive trends of open schools and COVID-19 vaccinations. As of today, 12 percent of public schools still offer no in-person learning. State and local governments should continue working to return children to school safely.
They have tools to help them in this respect: vaccinations have been extremely effective in aiding the overall return to work because they typically protect not only the vaccinated individual, but also those they come into contact with. This created a relatively consistent exponential decline in COVID-19 cases since the U.S. vaccination campaign began. Even children ineligible for the vaccines can benefit from adults around them being vaccinated.
Education is essential for families, and given the considerable recent success in fighting the pandemic there is more than enough room for this important priority.
Focus on the Overall Return to Work
Employment rates are similarly subdued—about five percent off of peak employment, regardless of gender or family structure. This suggests that the remaining issues that affect parents and women are mostly the same issues that affect everyone else.
Those issues are being addressed. The prevalence of COVID-19 will likely wane as vaccines persistently reduce transmission. Furthermore, state and local governments are removing pandemic-era policy interventions and allowing people to return to normal at their own pace.
Texas is an example of a state that has taken this approach; in March it lifted its statewide mask mandate, and furthermore allowed businesses to reopen at full capacity. Both of these were substantial changes from the prior regime. However, a recent NBER working paper suggests that the immediate impact of the policy change was negligible: COVID-19 cases continued to decline at a similar rate as before. This simple non-result also held under more sophisticated methods, like synthetic control or difference-in-differences, where researchers would compare Texas’s actual results to plausible counterfactuals drawn from other states, not just to Texas’s own past. The policy change also had little immediate impact on business foot traffic. The combined result suggests that people were largely making their own choices, whatever they may be, and not following the lead of Texas statewide policy.
States should still lift remaining restrictions, even if—as was the case in Texas—Americans are already making their own choices rather than precisely following statewide policies. Government should err on the side of free choice rather than mandate; removing statewide restrictions will allow people the option to return to activities as they feel ready or as case counts continue to improve.
There is more progress to be made for all workers, and that progress is likely to continue over the next few months as the virus recedes and restrictions are lifted.