Some people are starting to call the nation-wide recession a SHEcession. That’s a clever bit of word play but it’s certainly no joke. Until the coronavirus pandemic struck, women in America were starting to realize some real gains — better working conditions, more equity in the workplace, and political muscle in government.
The improved outlook, hard-fought and forged by leaders like the late great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was beginning to make us believe women workers were finally on a par with their male colleagues. The gender pay gap, a long disgrace, began narrowing.
But then along came the coronavirus. Those precious gains started slipping away. Look at the numbers: Women in the U.S. were 49 percent of the workforce at the end of 2019, but in 2020, they’ve chalked up 55 percent of job losses.
Women, as child bearers, have long suffered a handicap. Historically they’ve shouldered more child care and home work than men. That was true before the pandemic and it has become even more pronounced in this changed environment. Today many women are barely scrambling to balance work and home. Working moms must contend with day care closures, with on-line schooling, and with the demands of jobs that sometimes give one little choice between motherhood and unemployment.
When it comes to employment, jobs traditionally held by women have been more heavily impacted. Women are most often employed as our teachers, day care workers, dental hygienists, waitresses and beauticians. Some of these jobs are disappearing as businesses shut down or close temporarily.
This epidemic of women losing out during the pandemic and resulting downturn has yet to receive much notice, though there is a detailed story examining the phenomenon in the New York Times. The media tend to concentrate on other aspects of the crisis: infection rates, mask wearing, and the promise of a vaccine.
Cloaking the little-told story of women’s losses is an even uglier truth. While there have been economic losses for all this nation’s women, the pandemic has been especially devastating for women of color and for lower-income women. As it turns out: The economic disaster has a female face — a non-white female face. To discover the reason for this uneven burden, just look at the hardest hit businesses: restaurants, schools, travel, hospitality, personal care and even parts of the health care system. Those are the job sectors that have been most open to women in general but also to women of color.
Add to that equation the fact that the Trump administration has been particularly unfriendly to women. President Trump has actively worked to limit women’s access to health care. His Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who once signed an antiabortion ad, is among the most outrageous of Trump’s anti-women’s actions, but it’s not the only one. Earlier Trump signed an administrative order that allowed employers who claimed moral or religious objections to opt out of paying for contraceptive care.
If women are to recover from the SHEcession, it will require a concerted action to shore up the gains that women have made over the last half century, the years when Justice Ginsburg and others worked so hard to ensure equal opportunity for all.
There are three things we can ask our leaders to work on: Support for improved Obamacare and women’s health care, paid parental leave (comparable to Washington and California’s programs), and more available and affordable day care. These three actions are similar to programs most Western nations already provide. That’s been the real secret to their successful economies and it would be a real boost to ours.