COVID-19 Is Forcing Women Out of the Workplace at an Alarming Rate

A mother sit next to her child and helps him with homework.

 Paco Navarro/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • More women are leaving the workforce due to the pandemic than men, data shows.
  • Women are more likely to work in fields hit harder by the pandemic, and take on the bulk of child care.
  • The impact could last a decade if Congress doesn't take action on a relief package.

Donna, 61, has been working ever since she started babysitting at 12 years old. In September, she left the workforce for the first time due to COVID-19. She has a form of leukemia that makes her immunocompromised, and though she loved her job as an executive chef at a small inn in Milton, Delaware, she felt she couldn't do it safely during the pandemic.

"I intend to survive this pandemic, and the only way I'm going to be able to do that is to extremely minimize my contact with other people," she says.

Donna is one of the 617,000 women who dropped out of the U.S. workforce in September 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is almost eight times higher than the number of men who dropped out, at 78,000.

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, says data from one month doesn't show a trend that will continue, but it does show that women's labor force participation isn't bouncing back, which "just spells years of ongoing pain," she says. "The overall impact is just going to be a massive setback for the gender wage gap [and] for the gender employment gap."

Why Women Are Being Hit Harder By Unemployment

The unemployment rate for women in September was slightly higher than for men, at 8% and 7.7%, respectively. In past recessions, men have faced higher unemployment because male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing were more affected, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. But the service and hospitality industries, which employ a greater percentage of women, have been among those the pandemic hurt most.

Sarah, a 28-year-old living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says she was laid off from her job as a receptionist for a luxury apartment building in September. In July, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and became immunocompromised when she began treatment for it in August. "I asked for accommodations and they would not give them to me," she says. "I was concerned about COVID, because a lot of the residents in that building did not take the pandemic seriously."

Sarah, 28, Minneapolis, Minnesota

There's so many of these small businesses and women-run businesses that are dependent upon personal interactions.

— Sarah, 28, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Her employers allowed her to take unpaid medical leave, which she planned to return from after finishing treatment at the end of September. But a few weeks into her leave, they told her the position had been eliminated. Now she's relying on her husband's income, though he took a pay cut due to the pandemic, and she's receiving unemployment of $329 a week.

Before she was a receptionist, she cleaned houses, so when the pandemic hit, she thought, '"Oh my God, what would I have done if I was still housecleaning?'" she says. "There's so many of these small businesses and women-run businesses that are dependent upon personal interactions."

The Gendered Burden Of Child Care

Even prior to the pandemic, women shouldered more of the burden of home and child care. According to analysis of Census Bureau data from July, millennial mothers in heterosexual relationships are almost three times as likely as men to not be working during the pandemic due to child care needs.

Abby, a 35-year-old mom living in Raleigh, North Carolina, had just started a new role at the pharmaceutical services company she had been working at for more than a year when the pandemic hit. "I was really, really excited about it," she says. "It was like a great career turn, and my first day in that new role was March 16th."

She and her husband, who works in tech, worked from home for about two weeks while her daughter did virtual preschool classes. "One of us would get up at like 4 in the morning to work and then we'd switch off throughout the day and then we'd be working until 10 at night and we were exhausted and miserable," she says.

Abby, 35, Raleigh, North Carolina

I have strong feelings about the politics of my leaving the workforce... some days I wake up and I'm like, 'I feel like I'm setting women back.'

— Abby, 35, Raleigh, North Carolina

After two weeks, her husband was offered a job with a new company, and the "numbers worked out" so that she could leave her job. "On the one hand, I'm bummed, but at the same time... I never am like, 'Oh, I wish I was still working,' because this situation makes it impossible to do both," Abby says. She cited an article published by The New York Times titled, "In the COVID-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can't Have Both."

"I really think that that feels very, very true to me," she says. "I have strong feelings about the politics of my leaving the workforce... some days I wake up and I'm like, 'I feel like I'm setting women back.' But then at the same time, I'm aware that one of the reasons that so many women are leaving the workforce is because of the wage gap. And if someone's got to leave, it made sense in our lives for the person who was making less to leave."

The Impacts Could Last A Decade

Shierholz says the lack of COVID relief from Congress means the economic impacts of the pandemic could carry on for a decade. "With the lack of congressional action, it's likely that we're going to have persistently high unemployment for many years," Shierholz says. "It's going to have lasting effects on both men and women... so that just means it'll also have lasting effects on the gaps between men and women."

Heidi Shierholz, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute

The overall impact is just going to be a massive setback for the gender wage gap [and] for the gender employment gap.

— Heidi Shierholz, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute

Shierholz also noted that, though more women have left the workforce, that isn't an option for all women. "It completely denies this reality that poor women face who are disproportionately Black and Brown women," she says. "It doesn't matter how much they want to stay home to help their kids, they have no choice but to stay in the labor force."

Donna, Abby, and Sarah all plan to start working again at some point in the future. Sarah is learning graphic design in the hopes that it will translate to a remote job. Donna is waiting for a position that would allow her a safe transition back into the workforce when the pandemic improves. Abby will also get a job eventually, though she says she'll likely work part-time.

"I recognize there's a ton of privilege in that," Abby says. "But I know that even if I wanted to jump right back in, I know I would not be jumping in where I was. I would not be earning what I was."

What This Means For You

The pandemic could have lasting impacts on women's earning potential. Some women who were laid off have still been unable to find jobs, and the majority of those who are still working don't have the option to work from home, putting them at an increased risk of contracting the virus.

A coronavirus relief package would help mitigate the economic impacts of the virus. Consider calling your state representatives and asking them to support a relief package that would stabilize the economy, and reduce the pandemic's unequal impact on women.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment situation.

  2. Alon T, Doepke M, Olmstead-Rumsey J, Tertilt M. This time it's different: The role of women's employment in a pandemic recession. National Bureau of Economic Research.

  3. Malik R, Morrissey T. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing millennial mothers out of the workforce. Center for American Progress.

  4. Perelman D. In the Covid-19 economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both. New York Times.