How women are feeling the economic impacts of coronavirus

The economic recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women by almost every measure. And, in the United States, the economic downturn is hitting women of color the hardest, according to C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. © Shutterstock “We’re talking […]

The economic recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women by almost every measure. And, in the United States, the economic downturn is hitting women of color the hardest, according to C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

a group of people looking at a computer

© Shutterstock

“We’re talking about women who earn less than $40,000 a year, who are … grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, who if you don’t show up for work — meaning a physical place — you won’t be paid,” Mason said on a recent episode of “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction” podcast. “So it’s just a really very difficult time for many of these women and many of these workers. “

a person smiling for the camera: C. Nicole Mason, CEO of Institute for Women's Policy Research

© Courtesy of C. Nicole Mason
C. Nicole Mason, CEO of Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Mason — a single, Black mother herself — spoke to CNN Senior Global Affairs Analyst Bianna Golodryga about how this pandemic has exposed gaps in childcare and employment systems. Here is a transcript of that conversation:

Bianna Golodryga, CNN: We know that the unemployment rate has skyrocketed after the first few months of the pandemic and the unemployment rate specifically for women has been historically high. Can you just talk about why we’ve seen such a disparity in terms of women being much harder hit than we have for men overall?

Nicole Mason, Institute for Women’s Policy Research: So the reason why women have been most impacted by the job loss during the pandemic is that they are more likely to be employed in sectors that have been hardest hit. So the service sector, leisure and hospitality, education and health have been hardest hit during the pandemic.

And women … disproportionately … make up a larger segment of those workers. And what we know about those jobs and what makes it really hard for women is that those jobs are more likely to be lower paid jobs, jobs with less job security and less flexibility.

So when we think about rebuilding an economy or women re-entering the workforce, they’ll have a harder time because many of those jobs will not be coming back.

Golodryga: And if you want to delve deeper and not just focus on women, but on women of color, Blacks and Hispanics have been hit hardest. Can you give us your assessment as to why that is, how systemic that is, as a society overall, even prior to the pandemic? And some of the solutions that we can work on going forward?

Mason: So women of color are overrepresented in service sectors. Black and Latino make up 26% to 28% of those workers. Those women are having a really hard time re-entering and getting back into the workforce. Many of these women were struggling before the pandemic and this economic downturn.

And so it’s really exacerbated, you know, their economic vulnerability. And the other thing that I think it’s important for your listeners to know is that many of these women — specifically Black women and Latina women — they are more likely than other women to be the primary wage earner in their family. So they’re primary breadwinner. So it makes it that much harder for these families to get a foothold on their economic situation.

Golodryga: And longer term, in terms of getting out of financial hardships, how much harder is that going to be for these women and their families if they are the primary breadwinners?

Mason: We’re not going to see a one-to-one job replacement. So those jobs that we lost, so 60 million or so jobs that we lost, are not coming back. So (that) recovery is going to be slow.

Golodryga: And it really is a through-line to the consequences given the numbers that we’ve seen of coronavirus deaths and infections among specifically the minority community and minority women.

Mason: And that’s right. So the pandemic, this health crisis is merging with this economic crisis and these broken systems. So our childcare infrastructure has been broken for a long time. Many of these workers have been asking for, you know, health care, health insurance, better wages, better pay. And it hasn’t come. And so now we’re in this moment where we have this pandemic that is devastating communities, this health crisis, and then this economic crisis and we were not prepared.

When they passed the first CARES Act, which, you know, granted paid sick leave and expanded unemployment insurance, I think those are steps in the right direction. But right now, we have to be honest, with the infighting in Congress, many of these women are left hanging by a thread.

Golodryga: Well, it’s true. And I’m glad you brought that up, because Congress seems to have really failed not only the American public in the sense of not following up on additional stimulus, but women in particular, because involved in that stimulus package, in addition to the unemployment insurance enhancement, was also relief for child care.

Mason: Women can spend up to 30% of their income on childcare. And so when you think about women who are earning lower wages and thinking about the need. Schools are out. So that’s money that they’re going to have to pay to be able to cover care, especially if you have younger children who are in school.

It’s really … baffling to me that, you know, the people in power who can really do something about this and throw women and families a lifeline, aren’t really seeing fit to do so. You know, this is a national crisis.

Golodryga: You are a single Black mother. You have very smart, rambunctious, creative kids. We talked offline about them. What is this process been like for you?

Mason: You know, I’m fortunate that I can work remotely, but I can tell you this. It’s not working for me either. When it first happened in the spring … I emailed one of my kid’s teachers. I said, you know what? It’s just not going to happen. I can’t pull it together and not because I’m not capable or I’m not smart enough to figure it out. It’s that it’s impossible.

It’s impossible to work 40 hours a week and then also be told that now you have to make sure that your kids are online and learning. And I think about, you know, just to your point, the first day of school was last week, and I was getting my kids ready.

And I sometimes I think about my 5-year-old self or my 6-year old self. My kids have different lives than I could have imagined for myself as a kid. I grew up in Los Angeles and (we) were poor working class. And I thought about the kids who don’t have the resources. Who don’t have broadband access, who don’t have a safe … quiet place to learn. And I thought to myself, that would have been me, you know. And so I think that there’s not enough consideration or even national conversation about the impact of educational disparities, economic disparities and what it means in this moment and how these things … have been exacerbated in just a few months. Well, what that tells me is that these systems were not working in the first place and many people were just suffering in silence, including working women.

And what I’m optimistic about is that we’re realizing that these systems have been broken and they’re not working for working women like me and you, who can work from home. And they’re definitely not working for women who, you know, whose jobs are a bit more precarious.

Golodryga: For mothers in particular, this has put them once again in a “is it my career or is it my job as a mother that comes first?” And inevitably it’s going to be the latter. And I’m wondering, in terms of getting back into the workforce post-pandemic, it just seems like it’s going to be that much harder for women to get back to where they were, much less advance.

Mason: Let me tell you something. At the beginning of the year, we were celebrating the fact that women were more than 50% of the workforce. We were super excited. But underneath that, I kind of I knew that it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, that many women were struggling even though we were 50% of the workforce. And I also knew that employers, even though women are 50% of the workforce … they haven’t done much to accommodate women in the workforce.

You know, we’re still working nine-to-five and expected to figure out things with our kids. There are no accommodations. So when I think about getting women back into the workforce, I do think that there’s a role for the federal government or states to play in providing childcare support for families, and then also for employers … We need to rethink our workplace model.

If we don’t do that, then … women are not going to, again, like you said, be able to re-enter the workforce and sustain employment or advance in their careers. And we just as a country can’t afford that.

The economy can’t afford it. Because you know what? Women are half of the economy.

To be honest, you know what I really think it’s going to take? I think it’s going to take more building women’s power and influence and women being in leadership positions, because we know when women are in the top spots, that things happen. You know, policies reflect the experiences of women’s lives and families lives. You know, that’s just the bottom line.

Golodryga: I’m wondering what your hopes are for the future. You have a son and a daughter and you know, you want both (of) them to … achieve everything they ultimately can in life. And what does that look like for her in particular?

Mason: Well, you know, if we keep going on at the same pace, my daughter will not achieve pay equity for more than a century. Right now, we’re kind of stuck at 23% representation in elected office.

What I’m hoping for my daughter is that this moment sparks urgency for all of us. And we say that we need to build systems and institutions and opportunities for our next generation, but also for women now. And that we see that we can we can no longer go on. This is unsustainable.

And what I’m excited about is that I feel like that’s where we are. I feel like we are in the moment or saying, you know what, the systems are broken and it’s not our fault, but we’re going to rebuild them better, stronger and with an eye towards issues like equity, leveling out disparities like that. We are on that trajectory.

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