Ladies, we’re tired, right? Cooking, cleaning, raising kids and running the world takes its toll.

At the start of 2020, women’s participation in the labor force was at an all-time high of 58%, a reassuring and steadily rising figure that has significantly impacted middle-class income growth over the past century.

But by the end of 2020, female employment had dropped by 13%, a double-digit drop in a single year. From March to September 2020, 2.6 million women left the workforce, according to an October 2020 NPR report, “Stuck-At-Home Moms: The Pandemic’s Devastating Toll On Women.” COVID-related business closures eliminated jobs, while online schooling suddenly required someone to stay home during the day.

Economists are calling it the Pink Collar Recession — a cutesy name for a critical problem.

“A large portion of job losses during the pandemic has come in businesses such as restaurants and hotels, both sectors with high female employment….The impact on households is devastating….” says the NPR report. “An employment gap of just one year leads to a 39% decrease in annual earnings and that increases over time, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.”

“The pandemic’s female exodus has decidedly turned back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce down to levels not seen since 1988,” according to NPR.

Economists are calling it the Pink Collar Recession — a cutesy name for a critical problem.

Even pre-COVID, the working women in that 58% figure still shouldered the bulk of household responsibilities. In addition to full-time jobs outside the home, they were still most often folding clothes, making lunches and cleaning up after a sick dog.

A few months into 2020, when the virus upended the entire workforce, early speculation was that the work-from-home shift could benefit women by allowing more flexibility. And it did, but not without consequence. Suddenly, women could be in three places at once — work, home and school — each with its own demanding workload. At-home responsibilities became major nine-to-five interruptions. The flooded dishwasher was no longer an unpleasant after-work discovery, but a distracting, midday mini-crisis.

A Brookings study found that in households with school-age children, 44% of women now see themselves as being solely responsible for their kids’ daytime care — making lunches, monitoring classroom logins, solving IT issues — everything that typically happens at school, on someone else’s watch.

Those working remotely are also managing deadlines, calling clients and combing dry shampoo through their hair before a Zoom meeting, often for less pay than men in the same job.

From March to September 2020, 2.6 million women left the workforce. — NPR 

The continuing income disparity has been thoroughly covered, but never corrected. And it’s key to another major issue: child care.

When families weigh the costs of child care and consider the fiscal trade-offs, the lowest-paying position naturally ends up on the chopping block. And in a heterosexual household, guess whose job that is?

The current crisis did give rise to new assistance programs, including The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which provided three months of parental paid leave, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which aimed to reduce soaring poverty rates. Both initiatives required advanced maneuvering through murky government websites, but proved to be stop-gap fixes rather than sophisticated solutions.

Wage disparity and women’s work-life balance are two huge preexisting conditions screaming for real, long-term, systemic change. They instead got a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound.

Economists are worried.

“If not soon reversed, the decline in the participation rate for prime‑age women could have longer-term implications for household incomes and potential growth,” Federal Reserve Gov. Lael Brainard said in [an October] speech,” the NPR report states.

“The pandemic’s female exodus has decidedly turned back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce down to levels not seen since 1988.”
— Pallavi Gogoi,  NPR.

The silver lining may be that people are finally paying attention. Economists are now advocating for innovative, workable changes to family leave plans, child care options and schooling systems that could narrow and eventually eliminate the wage gap.

COVID has forced us to reexamine every mundane little corner of our life. Yes, we drink too much. Fewer Doritos, more leafy greens. Family is essential. Travel and live music are precious experiences. And work, well, work can be adjusted. We can adapt. We can figure this out.

So, let’s finally dedicate time and resources to some decades-old problems. If, in the span of a few weeks, millions of grandparents can learn to grocery shop online, and entire school districts can transition every student and teacher to online learning, then we can certainly tackle the core issues in our long-held work structures.

Let’s make 2020 the year that taught us adaptability; the year that opened our eyes to repercussions — and possibilities. And ladies, if anyone needs a break, I can watch the kids tomorrow afternoon.

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