Women’s unemployment has risen by more than men’s


HAIR SALONS tend to be recession-proof. People always need haircuts. During the financial crisis of 2007-09, the number of hairdressers in America even rose. For Sylvia, who owns a small salon in Amsterdam, that crisis was very different from today’s. “Lockdown came out of nowhere and I had no buffer. It was terrifying.” She is relieved that her business has survived, and heartened that regulars phoned in as soon as she reopened. “If it had lasted any longer,” she says, fighting back tears while disinfecting the previous customer’s seat, “I would have gone under.”

Women have borne the brunt of the economic disruption caused by lockdowns. In America, despite making up less than half of the workforce, they accounted for 55% of jobs lost in April. In Britain, mothers are one-and-a-half times as likely as fathers to have lost or quit their jobs during lockdown, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a think-tank.

The unevenness reflects the fact that women are more likely to work in services that require interacting with people (see chart 1). But hotels, restaurants and shops have been forced to shut, and the work cannot be done from home. Moreover, with creches and schools closed and grandparents socially distant, they are doing most of the child care. That has forced some to stop work and others to work less. If those job and productivity losses persist, they could reverse progress towards gender equality in the workplace.

Today’s picture is in stark contrast to previous recessions (see chart 2). Men are usually worse affected, because they dominate sectors such as manufacturing and construction, which tend to be badly hit. Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University and Michele Tertilt of the University of Mannheim estimate that three-quarters of all cyclical employment fluctuations between 1989 and 2014 were due to men losing and gaining jobs. Women, by contrast, have acted as stabilisers. Employment in services and public sectors, which are female-dominated, tends to be less volatile. And wives take up work or increase their hours when husbands lose jobs.

This time, though, services involving face-to-face interaction, such as hospitality, have suffered most. In much of Europe employment in health care and education has held up well so far, cushioning women’s job losses. But in America these sectors have not been spared, with five times as many women losing their jobs as men. And because firms run by women are concentrated in customer-facing sectors, female small-business founders were much more likely than men to expect a drop in sales owing to covid-19, according to a survey by Robert Fletcher and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University. A dearth of job vacancies also means that women who are not already in the labour market are unlikely to enter to compensate for husbands’ job losses.

Whether the hit to so-called “pink” sectors persists depends on whether customers flock back as restrictions are lifted. Some jobs will return quickly, but structural shifts could well mean fewer air hostesses or event organisers for some time. Temporary layoffs could become permanent as employers go bust. Those fired will struggle to find new jobs, particularly without downskilling. (The pink wave could also turn purple: in Canada, the latest figures show that job losses in “blue” sectors seem to be catching up.)

Sex segregation alone cannot explain why women have been hit hardest, though. Even after controlling for it, women in Britain were 15% more likely to have lost their job and 8% more likely to have been furloughed, found a survey led by Abi Adams-Prassl at Oxford University. “We kept thinking we could explain the gender difference away by controlling for the fact that men and women do different jobs,” says Ms Adams-Prassl. A similar method explained why low-skilled workers were more likely to be out of work than high-skilled ones. “But with gender”, she says, “this wasn’t enough.” Possible explanations for the difference include discrimination, or that, bereft of child care, some mothers chose to leave their jobs.

Productivity drains
Higher-skilled women are less likely to lose their jobs than lower-skilled ones, and more likely to work from home. Many are caring for children at the same time. British households with young children are doing an extra 40 hours of child care and schooling a week, find Almudena Sevilla of University College London and Sarah Smith of the University of Bristol. On average, mothers do two-thirds of this. Even furloughed fathers do no more child care than mums in paid work.

The gradual emergence from lockdowns could do particular harm to women’s careers, worries Claudia Goldin of Harvard University. With workplaces reopening before child-care centres fully do, couples could be forced to decide who returns to work full-time and who minds the kids. The lower earner, often the woman, might stay home.

Even when working mothers do sit down to prepare that PowerPoint presentation, they are 50% more likely to be disturbed than fathers, according to a survey in May by the IFS. This “Mu-u-um” pattern continued even when the woman was the higher earner. Such productivity losses could harm pay and promotions. “I fear we’ll start to see the impact of this in two to three years’ time in a widening gender pay gap,” predicts Vera Troeger of Warwick University. Academia offers a glimpse of what may come. Several journals report a drop in submissions by female scholars during the pandemic; male submissions to some journals have increased. “Scholarly articles are our currency,” adds Ms Troeger. “They give access to tenure, job offers, higher pay.”

The pandemic has, at least, helped normalise remote working. Before covid-19 only one in 50 Americans worked from home full-time. By early April, more than one in three did. With the investments made and the concept proven, predicts Mr Bloom, “we’re never going back to the old world.” That would be good news for mothers, who tend to pick jobs that fit around their children, with more forgiving hours and shorter commutes. But it will primarily benefit university graduates, who have jobs that are easier to do from home. Less-educated women cannot count on such a silver lining. A loss of employer demand and additional child-care duties make their job prospects altogether bleaker.

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