Recent studies find that women dropped out of the labour market to school their children

Graphic detail

RECESSIONS TYPICALLY hit men harder than women, not least because they tend to disproportionately affect male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing. In the recession of 2008-09, for example, men accounted for some three-quarters of American job losses. The most recent downturn, by contrast, has weighed on female-dominated sectors, such as retail and hospitality. Last year the share of women on American payrolls fell from 50% in March 2020 to 49.1% two months later, before inching back up to 49.8% today.

A recent paper by three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggests that some of the disparity can be explained by differences in parental responsibilities. Using monthly data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the researchers analysed the labour-market outcomes of four groups of prime-age workers (those aged from 25 to 54): mothers; fathers; women without children; and men without children. They found that women suffered more than men in the wake of the pandemic but mothers fared worst of all. Between February and December the employment rate of mums dropped by 7% and their labour-force participation rate fell by 4%. Fathers, by comparison, suffered the least among the four groups—even less than childless men. Their employment and labour-force participation rates fell by 4% and 1%, respectively. Another recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that that the effect was biggest for mothers with children under five.

School closures mattered, too. The San Francisco Fed researchers also compiled a state-level “school-disruption index” based on the share of respondents reporting interruptions to their children’s schooling. Unsurprisingly, they found that parents in states where most schools remained shut last year, such as California, fell out of the workforce at higher rates than those in states where schools were kept open for longer, such as South Dakota. The reopening of schools may now make things better for women. A recent study from the Census Bureau finds that women are regaining jobs at faster rates than men.

Women have begun returning to work, but they have a lot of catching up to do. In America just 55.8% of women are active in the workforce. Prior to last year, participation has not been this low since 1987. Elsewhere women have suffered similar woes. According to a recent study from McKinsey, a consultancy, women make up 39% of the global workforce but accounted for 54% of the job losses from the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic to June last year. Although women in countries with more regulated labour markets fared better than in places such as America. In Latin America, women were 44% more likely than men to lose a job in the pandemic’s first two months.

Policymakers are starting to pay attention. Last month Kamala Harris, America’s vice-president, called the exodus of women from the workforce a “national emergency.” At the weekend the American Rescue Plan, a massive fiscal-stimulus package passed the Senate (Ms Harris had cast the tie-breaking vote to begin debate). It promises $1,400 in cheques to most adults and an additional $1,400 to parents for every child on their tax return, which could help ease the pressure on working mums.

One way of encouraging women to remain in or return to the workforce would be to pay them more. On March 4th the European Commission proposed a new plan to increase pay transparency to ensure that women are paid on comparable terms to men. In Britain, where similar measures are already in place, companies with at least 250 employees have to publish their gender pay gap. Yet covid-19 has caused an 18-month delay to the reporting. As the data from America and elsewhere show, women need it more than ever.