Working Women and COVID-19

Sophie Mulaire, Contributing Writer

The election of the first-ever woman Vice President to the White House was a momentous occasion and a historic win for American women. Yet hopes that Kamala Harris’ accomplishment would be an example for working-class women quickly diminished, as women’s presence in the workforce recently dropped to record lows. The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions out of their jobs and caused catastrophic damage to economies worldwide. While the virus affected lives globally, women have borne the brunt of the hardships, and the result has been the striking loss of a generation of progress in a single year. 

Over 5 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, accounting for over half the jobs lost due to COVID-19, despite representing a smaller portion of the working population than men. Of the nearly 2.5 million women still out of work, 8.5 percent of Black women and 8.8 percent of Latina women are unemployed, compared to only 5.1 percent of white women, as women of color have been especially impacted.

The overrepresentation of women in high-risk careers is one reason for this dramatic decline in employment rates, as industries such as retail, entertainment, recreation, and the arts have had to fight the hardest to survive. The lack of sustainable child care forced many women who hadn’t already been laid off to put their careers on hold to care for their families. Despite the progress made in recent decades, women continue to face more obstacles in pursuit of rewarding careers, consistently having to work harder than men to gain equal status, equal pay, and equal respect. This reality has resulted in less job security for women, yet they are still the ones expected to make sacrifices when conflicts between home and career arise─suggesting that the historic marginalization of women is at the root of the disproportionate impact the virus has had on them in the workforce. 

Working women in Hastings-on-Hudson are no strangers to the effects of the pandemic, and an interview with two female teachers at the high school shed some light on the true hardships professional women have faced in the last year. Ms. Royal, an English teacher, only just returned to work this past February, and was still only able to return part-time. She cited the lack of affordable childcare available as a reason for why she was unable to work, as well as the fact that paid parental leave in New York state was simply inadequate during  the harsh conditions of the pandemic: “…let’s call it what it is─the wage gap is real, so the burden of childcare often falls on mothers’ shoulders─our jobs are seen as more expendable.” Ms. Shandroff, a science teacher, also recognized this: “In many families, women take the lead caregiving role.”

Given that the United States remains one of the only industrialized countries that lacks a sustainable childcare system, the responsibilities that come with children were already stacked against mothers before the pandemic. “Women lost their village,” Ms. Royal explained, “grandparents, babysitters, neighbors─all of the ways we help support each other in this broken system were too risky during Covid.” Both teachers stated that in order to better protect women in the workforce in the future, America needs to work towards creating universal childcare, and put structures in place that support working mothers, not undermine them. “It is really expensive for daycare, so subsidizing it to help those who need daycare for their children would be a huge help,” offered Ms. Shandroff.  

At a minimum, stronger laws that protect women’s access to equal opportunities must be enacted. Women’s jobs should not be seen as expendable, or any less significant. Access to affordable childcare must be expanded, and companies need to provide more flexibility to workers when determining their schedules. 

The colossal damage caused by COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the workplace─how we approach its restoration will determine if that impact is positive or negative. The solution to a robust recovery is not simply getting women back into the workforce, but ensuring they are returning to an environment in which they can thrive. Those best equipped to lead the recovery are the women who made the sacrifices and experienced the dire struggles of this catastrophe. Now more than ever, women must become the leaders they seek, for only they can be the force committed enough to truly bring about meaningful change. Kamala Harris’ historic electoral victory, amidst unprecedented hardships faced by women, should serve as a catalyst for a revitalized workforce, true gender equality, and for bringing about a future in which there are no limits on what women can achieve in their careers.