Blair examines unemployment among American women during the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Melissa Blair

While a pandemic indicates primarily a health crisis, there are many societal facets associated with it that are still being explored. One of the people looking at how a crisis may exacerbate existing disparities among the sexes is Melissa Blair, associate professor of history. Blair researches and teaches U.S. women’s history. With an April unemployment rate more than 14%, Blair talks about how and why unemployment affects women in the United States and what new challenges and outcomes are likely to arise. 

Historically, how does unemployment differ across the sexes?

Just like other economic crises in history, the burdens of unemployment in the coronavirus pandemic are different across the sexes. During both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, women’s unemployment percentages were lower than men’s. During the Great Depression, women’s employment rate actually increased, as women whose husbands or fathers who lost their jobs entered the workforce for the first time. What’s fascinating, and different, is that while many articles have documented the high percentage of essential workers – nurses, grocery store clerks, child care providers – who are women, women’s unemployment rate is higher than men’s in this current crisis.

What is the reason for this divide?

The reason unemployment rates differ by sex is that the American labor market continues to be very segregated by sex. And fields that disproportionately employ women, like nursing, teaching and social work are somewhat crisis-proof. In any kind of economic downturn, there are still sick people, children and people who need social workers (probably even more of them). This pattern is the same today as it was during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Great Recession. Even though the U.S. labor market is much less sex-segregated today than it was 90 years ago, there remain a number of fields that employ one gender much more than the other.

Which areas of women’s paid work are affected most during an economic downturn?

The big exception to the idea that women’s jobs are more durable in crisis than men’s jobs are the lowest-paid women’s fields, like domestic work, home health aides and child care workers. While some day cares have stayed open, many have closed (including the one I use). Also, domestic and home health workers are particularly affected by the pandemic, and I suspect that that is the reason why we are seeing women’s unemployment at higher rates than men’s. Fields like retail and service, which have been so hard hit, are predominantly staffed by women. I suspect clerical work is another field that’s taken a big unemployment hit – if white-collar workers are working from home, receptionists and other administrative assistants have likely been laid off. Some of these same fields, especially domestic work and retail, were also hard-hit during the Great Depression. For example, women who lost their jobs as full-time domestic workers would stand on corners in New York City and try to find day work for as little at 10 cents a day. These low-paid women’s jobs are disappearing for a different reason, but the dynamics are strikingly similar.

With so many schools and daycares closed, who are the primary caretakers for children?

If a woman has children at home, or has a family member fall ill and need care, she is typically the one doing the majority of care work. A new survey shows that about two-thirds of women reported doing most of the domestic work in homes where both adults are working from home. In households where children under 12 are present, that number is a bit higher, at 70%. And that makes it harder to do their paid jobs. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, has reported that women’s submission to academic journals were markedly lower than men’s in April, much more so than normal. The assumption is that women who are now having to do two jobs simultaneously – employee and mother – are having to prioritize. This isn’t a problem only of academia, but of most white collar jobs that transitioned to remote work.

I’m writing this while my 3-year-old watches “Wild Kratts” and my 9-year-old plays Minecraft. I’m lucky because the 9-year-old has done a great job with doing her own school work and doesn’t need me to set any of that up, and the little one will watch TV as long as I will let him. It gives me time to do short things like this, which are more casual than my published work. There’s no way I could do that kind of writing right now. And I got my work done for my classes only because my husband has also been working from home and had a lot of flexibility in his schedule for most of April. But now that the semester is over, I’m full-time mom until my son’s day care re-opens and I can get to work on the major writing project I had planned for this summer.

So, what happens next?

I think what’s next could fall onto the two very different paths of what happened after the other two crises I mentioned. The Great Depression was a turning point for women’s paid employment – the number kept going up ever after that, except for a brief downturn after World War II. But by the mid-1950s, the percentage of women in the paid labor force was higher than at the WW II peak, so that really was a blip. And of course the Great Depression led to all kinds of changes in American society, everything from Social Security and unemployment insurance to bank regulation to the federal home loan program that the GI Bill utilized after WW II. There are lots of columnists and pundits out there talking about the pandemic as a chance to change the fundamental inequalities of American society, including things like better access to high-quality child care and predictable schedules for retail and service workers that will have a substantial bearing on women’s lives. So, we could go that way.

On the flip side, very little changed after the Great Recession. If anything, the big problems in American society, especially inequality, have stalled or gotten worse in the past 10 years. The Affordable Care Act was one of the only big policy shifts that we saw in the wake of that recession, and that was implementing an idea that politicians had been seriously talking about off and on since the Great Depression. The other things that changed shortly thereafter (gay marriage, primarily) had very little relationship to the financial crisis. Very, very little has changed on the issues of women and paid employment – no movement on child care, paid family leave, policies to make it easier for women to enter the workforce after stepping out to care for their kids or elders, things like that.
The most likely scenario, I think, is a middle ground in which some things change, but not the kind of big, sweeping overhaul that we saw with the New Deal. What the path forward looks like also depends hugely on the November elections, both presidential and congressional.



Last Updated: May 08, 2020