Yes, this is not the first recession or depression to deeply affect women. Literally every economic downturn has had dramatic impacts on everyone. But there is a new feature to the pandemic-induced recession that has decimated employment, manufacturing, child care, education, and just about every other facet of life. It is women, not men who are the most greatly affected by the force of the shutdown. Welcome to the first women-led recession, or as Amanda Holpuch recently dubbed it in the Guardian, the “shecession.”
It is both cruel and entirely expected. Throughout the twentieth century, and especially during and after World War Two, women entered the workforce at ever greater rates. However, they have been systematically prevented from career advancement. For many, entering the workforce did not mean giving up parenting, but without universal healthcare women burned both ends of the candle or accepted gaps in employment to raise children. This put them at a disadvantage in a system that rewards consistent employment histories. For single mothers, an object of particular derision in American society, the choices were even starker.
Regardless of one’s field, however, women remain consistently underpaid and often siphoned into gendered, low-wage work with far fewer accoutrements of employment security, such as paid sick leave, health insurance, reliable childcare. Employment in service and hospitality swelled in the wake of the last recession bolstered by women workers who accepted precarious employment over none at all. Thus, when the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns and mass furloughs and lay-offs occurred, women were first in the firing line. And even those who could keep their jobs “voluntarily” left work due to child care concerns.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates for women have exceeded 10 percent for the first time since the Truman administration when the BLS first started measuring women’s unemployment. The losses have been particularly devastating to Black and Latinx workers, the latter of whom saw 21% unemployment. Currently, one in six Black women remain unemployed. Additionally, as rehirings have occurred in May and June, women saw their highest gains in the sectors most likely to be affected by the surges in cases that seem to be crashing over the country like a swell breaking along miles of unbroken beach: hospitality and dining. Indeed, according to data one out of three workers rehired during the premature reopening have been laid off again, and more jobs are being permanently lost every week.
This is to say nothing of jobs like grocery store cashiers, social workers, nurses aids, and elderly care workers that have been deemed “essential” and represent large swaths of working women in the US. With the cratering of the largely privatized child care system in the US and most of the largest school districts opting for another round of online learning when schools reopen in the late summer, “essential” women have grim prospects.
Although it would be easy to fall into a deep pessimism, that would be incorrect. As Arundhati Roy remarked recently, the pandemic is a portal, “it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing would be worse than a return to normality.” Pessimism is in part a desire to return to something that no longer exists. But, do we want a return to a world of debt, precarious low-wage work, few employment rights when we can imagine and enact a new one where things like universal childcare and paid sick leave are the default, not the rewards for advancing within a rigged system.