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Women and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The “Shecession”

The term “mancession” was coined by an economist during the Great Recession of 2008 to describe its overwhelming impact on men in the workplace, being that the two largest industries then affected were largely male dominated – financial services and construction. The term “shecession” is now being used to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment and working life of women who have experienced the negative effects of COVID-19 at a much steeper rate than men. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most businesses operate and will continue to do so. These changes have, no doubt, affected all sectors of the workforce, but research has shown that working women have been far more negatively impacted by these changes than working men and have borne the brunt of the pandemic and will continue to do so in terms of their long-term careers. In this paper, we will explore the breadth of this development, the root cause of it, and what employers can do to address these changes and to alleviate the harm that has been done and continues to be done on a gender basis.

The Statistics

“At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending – albeit slowly – in the right direction. Between January 2013 and December 2019, the number of women in senior-vice-president positions increased from 23 to 28 percent, and in the C-suite from 17 to 21 percent.”[1] COVID-19 has resulted in a major setback for women in the workplace, with many mothers leaving the workplace, downshifting their careers and senior-level women reporting stress as the main reason. Various industry analysts predict that the small gains we saw in female representation in high level positions could be lost due to the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced women out of the workforce at disproportionately higher rates compared to men. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor in September 2020, 865,000 women left the workforce because of the pandemic, almost four times more than men.[2] “Long-term joblessness increases the likelihood that an unemployed person will not return to the workforce. A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the chances of an unemployed person finding a job drops 50% after eight months of consecutive unemployment.”[3]

Further, a Boston Consulting Group survey of working parents in five countries, including the U.S. found that while unpaid child care duties increased 27 hours per week during the pandemic, women took on the majority of those hours – 15 of those additional 27 hours.[4]

A survey published March 22, 2021, by the KFF Women’s Health Survey, in which 3,661 women and 1,144 men ages 18 to 64 participated, found the following:

  1. Nearly one in 10 women (8 percent) reported quitting a job due to a pandemic related reason; almost half of those said one of the reasons was that they did not feel safe in the workplace.[5] The other half cited school closures as one of the reasons they quit their jobs.
  2. Low-income women were three times more likely than higher income women to report quitting a job for a COVID-19 related reason.
  3. The women who reported having to leave a job was significantly higher among single mothers – 17 percent – as compared to those who are married or who have partners – nine percent.
  4. Almost half of working mothers said they took unpaid sick leave because their child’s school or day care was closed.
  5. Over one-third of women (35 percent) said they took unpaid sick leave because of their own illness or because they had to quarantine.
  6. Prior to the pandemic, more women than men reported that they were caring for a family member with special needs (14 percent women v. nine percent men). Over one in 10 women said they had to take on new caregiving responsibilities because of the pandemic as opposed to less than 10 percent of men.
  7. Mothers were more likely than fathers to miss work during the pandemic, because of school or day care closings. Almost four out of 10 (38 percent) low income women reported that they had to take time off work for these reasons; as compared to 27 percent of women whose income was over 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
  8. Over two-thirds of working mothers who were low-income and nearly three in four women working part-time jobs were not paid when they had to take time off because their child’s school or daycare was closed.
  9. More than half of the mothers of school age children said that their mental health has been affected by the pandemic, but only 16 percent of them have sought mental health care.

The Root Cause

Why have women been more adversely affected by the pandemic than men? We will explore several of the reasons in this section.

  1. Women have always been the primary family caregivers, even before the pandemic. With so many in-person schools closed, and child care options becoming unavailable or substantially limited, women had to take on many new responsibilities with regard to childcare: They have had to assist with remote learning, in some cases homeschooling their children, all while trying to maintain employment.
  2. Childcare facilities closed in record numbers during the early months of the pandemic and in April 2020, “the Center for American Progress estimated that as many as 4.5 million child care slots could be permanently lost due to the pandemic.”[6] Further, “[i]nterruptions caused by child care affect women more than men. . . . in response to school, child care and camp closings, as well as reduced hours and reduced class sizes, significantly more women than men have reduced their work hours, left work to care for children, and spent more time on education and household tasks. The latest evidence shows that due to COVID-19 school and child care closures, mothers with young children have arranged reductions in their work hours that are four to five times greater than the reductions arranged by fathers. These disproportionate reductions have more than doubled the gap between the number of hours worked by men and by women.[7]
  3. Women are more likely than men to take time off work for child care reasons. Part-time and low-wage jobs are less likely to offer paid leave benefits, resulting in more women going without pay last year and into this year. There is still a stigma in the U.S. workplace surrounding men who take parental leave.
  4. “The lack of a child care infrastructure or family-forward workplace policies – policies that support caregivers to both provide and care for their family members” has caused “[m]others to continue to shoulder the majority of family caregiving responsibilities.”[8] The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) requires that employers provide unpaid leave under certain circumstances, but “about 40% of American workers are not covered by the law.”[9] Further, only nine of the 50 states have enacted paid family leave legislation. While Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) in March 2020, which gave up to 12 weeks of paid leave to certain employees where their children’s schools or day care closed, that law expired on December 31, 2020, and after that date, employers were no longer required to grant such leave but could do so voluntarily. In March 2021, Congress passed a second coronavirus relief bill. However, the new law differs from the prior relief bill in that it no longer mandates that employers provide paid leave; rather, it incentivizes employers by proving tax credits to those who provide paid leave to employees who need to care for a child.[10]
  5. Most women in heterosexual relationships earn less than their male partners. As a result, they “are more likely than men to leave the workforce. . . . it makes more sense on a financial level for them to reduce their hours or leave the workforce entirely to pick up the growing amount of unpaid work at home.”[11]
  6. “Unlike previous recessions where predominantly male industries, like manufacturing were hardest hit, this crisis has shut down sectors that are highly feminized, such as retail, accommodation, hospitality, arts and recreation, and beauty and hair services.”[12]

What Can Employers Do?

  • Employers should acknowledge the unpaid care burden on women and institute policies to lessen that burden, like providing employees with the opportunity to have flexible working arrangements, with flexible hours.[13] If these policies are implemented or even if they already exist, employers should make sure employees know that it is permissible for them to use them and perhaps, even encourage their use.
  • Employers should consider providing enhanced childcare opportunities for employees and paid leave policies, instituting parental leave, and encouraging male employees to take on some of the burden.
  • Employers should understand that much of the anxiety and stress employees, and particularly women employees, are experiencing results from worries about job security and the timing of being called to return to the office. Employers should provide clarity, where possible, advising employees “where they stand, informing them on what decisions are being made and why, and sharing the plan for what’s coming next.”[14]
  • Employers should communicate with their employees that they recognize the challenges they are facing during these unprecedented times, and if possible, lighten the workload. Women have reported that the recognition “made them feel as though their struggles were being seen and they expressed an unwavering commitment to their employers.”[15]
  • Finally, employers who were empathetic, responsive and compassionate during the early months of the pandemic should make sure that they continue to “ask employees what they need, how they feel, and if they feel comfortable in how they work.” Perhaps, managers could start meetings with a check-in or if they feel someone needs a one-to-one conversation, make sure that happens. “Remember that life, and work, are still far from normal. Employees – particularly working mothers – need compassion, empathy, and understanding more than ever.”[16]


[1]McKinsey & Company, Seven charts that show COVID-19’s impact on women’s employment, March 8, 2021,

[2] Kemberley Washington, Korrena Bailie, Covid-19 Is Forcing Women From The Workplace In Record Numbers – And We Don’t Know When They’ll Be Back, Oct. 19, 2020,

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Usha Ranji, Brittni Frederiksen, Alina. Salganicoff, Michelle Long, Women, Work and Family During COVID-19: Findings from the KFF Women’s Health Survey, March 22, 2021,

[6] Julie Kasen, Sarah Jane Glynn, Amanda Novello, How COVID-19 Sent Women’s Workforce Progress Backward, Oct. 30, 2020,

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Eliana Dockterman, Love or Money, Time Magazine Special Report, Mar. 22, 2021.

[10] Id.

[11] Livia Gershon, Covid-19’s Impact on Working Women Is an Unprecedented Disaster, Oct. 19, 2020,

[12] Lisa Smyth, The true impact of COVID-19 on women in the workplace, Oct. 23, 2020,

[13] Id.

[14] Dana Sumpter, Mona Zanhour, 3 Ways Companies Can Retain Working Moms Right Nos, Nov. 12, 2020,

[15] Id.

[16] Id.