The Pandemic is Pushing Women Out of the Workforce

By McKenzie Schwark
Feature Writer

After decades of fighting for more fair and equal opportunities, women are leaving the workforce in droves.

The percentage of women in the workforce is now as low now as it was in the 1980s, sending women back decades. 

Women in 2020 are paid less, held to higher & different standards, and expected to shoulder the brunt of increased responsibilities at home.

Between August and September of this year, 800,000 women left the workforce (as compared to 216,000 men). Though the economy has sputtered back to life since the mass shut downs this spring, the wage gap, caregiving expectations, and collapsing industries have kept women from participating. 

Over the previous five years, women made major strides in corporate America, but the pandemic has all but erased that progress. The financial, physical, and mental challenges that have emerged since COVID-19 appeared have taken an extreme toll on working women. A report on Women in the Workplace found that many women were now seeking out less demanding opportunities and looking instead for a better work-life balance. 

Childcare and homeschooling responsibilities have ramped up further for women as states have closed schools or pivoted to online learning. About half of American children are no longer attending school in person. When asked about their biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, female employees ranked childcare high on the list, just above the health of loved ones. Many women workers also reported feeling like their performance at work was being negatively judged as they tried to balance their workload with exacerbated childcare and household duties. 

The additional responsibilities have been even more challenging for single mothers and women of color. Latina and Black mothers are more likely to be the breadwinners in their families, or to have partners who work outside of the home. How can moms be simultaneously working and caring for young children or supervising online learning?

One of the study’s subjects illustrated the situation saying, “I feel like I am failing at everything. I’m failing at work. I’m failing at my duties as a mom. I’m failing in every single way, because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible.” 

Even as more women have entered the workforce, or reached higher positions, research has shown that household responsibilities have still mostly fallen on them. 70% of fathers report feeling the household responsibilities are equally split, while only 44% of mothers agree. The time and energy they spend taking care of children and their homes is equivalent to taking on a second job. And as the pandemic has most of us spending more time in our homes, the demands are only increasing. 

Financial insecurity ranks as another top concern for women during the pandemic. Many women-dominated industries have collapsed under the pressure of the past six months. Hospitality, education, and entertainment have all been hit hard. Women, especially women of color, have been most affected by unemployment rates and a lack of jobs.  Men still tend to outearn their female peers, and mothers stepping back from their jobs makes the most financial sense for many families. For single women and single mothers leaving the workforce may not be an option, forcing them to take on the role of stay at home mom, schoolteacher, and full time employee. 

The consequence of a workforce made up of burnt out, exhausted women crumbling under the pressures from both work and home, is losing women in leadership positions, or in companies altogether. That hurts both women and the companies they work for. 

It begs the question: when will issues like affordable childcare, equal pay, and education be seen as human issues, and not just “women’s issues”?