Multiple Demands Causing Women To Abandon Workforce

Oct 2, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 11:54 am

Here's a stunning stat: Women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate as men.

The burden of parenting and running a household while also working a job during the pandemic has created a pressure cooker environment in many households, and women are bearing the brunt of it.

It has come to a head as a new school year starts with many children staying home instead of returning to their classrooms in person because of the pandemic. And its forcing many women to make a difficult choice and drop out of the workforce altogether.

Just in September, 865,000 women over 20 dropped out of the American workforce compared with 216,000 men in the same age group, the Labor Department reported Friday.

"It was a really startling difference," said University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson. "The child care crisis is wreaking havoc on women's employment."

Youli Lee is one of those women who hit the breaking point of working from home while caring for her children. She took a leave of absence from her federal job after finding it impossible to do her normal work from home while her three children — ages 8, 11, and 13 — were also at home doing virtual school.

When news came that the kids' schools in Fairfax County, Va., would only partially reopen at best, she decided: "I can't keep this up. This is too much."

Stevenson says the burden of home schooling, cooking and cleaning "is taking its toll on a lot of families. Even when men are doing more than they've perhaps done in any other generation, it's still not half."

Indeed, the Labor Department finds that married mothers do almost double the amount of household chores and parenting as married fathers.

At the end of 2019, women held just over half of all payroll jobs, for only the second time in history. Now, women now account for 49.7% of the workforce.

"Women got hit hardest, earliest," by layoffs in restaurants, retail, and health care — industries that were hard hit by the pandemic and which employ a lot of women, Stevenson notes.

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Some startling new numbers from the U.S. Labor Department - 865,000 women dropped out of the U.S. workforce last month. That's four times the number of men. We have known for months that women are losing more jobs in the pandemic than men. Now we've learned they're quitting their jobs at a much faster clip.

NPR's Andrea Hsu joins us now. Andrea, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: What's going on?

HSU: So these are women who may have been laid off, or maybe they quit, or they took a leave of absence. But here's what they have in common. They are not looking for work. So altogether, over a million people left the workforce last month, and 80% of them were women. And think about it. This was August to September.

SIMON: When schools reopened remotely and in person, yes?

HSU: Yeah. We know that almost half of school districts started the year remote. And I talked with Emily Martin. She's with the National Women's Law Center. She says, you know, that left so many families in a bind.

EMILY MARTIN: How are they going to make this work? Unfortunately, when families are faced with that question, women dropping out of the workforce is - it's too often the answer.

HSU: And, you know, Scott, Emily Martin also highlighted another finding in this labor report - that more than a third of the women who dropped out of the workforce last month were Latina. Now, the data don't tell us what jobs they lost, but you can assume that some of them had jobs that couldn't be done from home, or maybe they had jobs that don't exist right now, like service sector jobs. And she says this just points, once again, to the worsening of inequities in the pandemic.

SIMON: And, Andrea, why are women bearing the brunt of job loss in this difficult time?

HSU: Well, sadly, this is nothing new. You know, study after study finds that women shoulder more of the child care, more of the housework in families. You know, men are doing more around the house than a generation ago, but the Labor Department has found mothers still spend almost twice as much time on child care and chores. So you add to that virtual school, and women are just saying this is too much.

You know, this week I talked with Youli Lee. She's a lawyer and a mom of three kids. She lives in Fairfax County, Va. She tried to work from home starting in March when her kids' schools closed. And she did back-to-back work calls until one day she realized that her younger kids weren't eating lunch, and they just didn't know what time it was. And she says that was kind of a wake-up call for her.

YOULI LEE: I said, you know what? Now I'm not joining every call. Like, I just can't do it. But it was just so many that I had to miss because there are so many things that I had to do for my kids that it just became an untenable situation.

HSU: And so she ended up taking a leave of absence, and now she's home with the three kids this fall.

SIMON: What are some of the long-term consequences of women dropping out of the workforce?

HSU: Yeah, so a lot of people are concerned about this. You know, Youli Lee told me that she took off time earlier in her career when she was having her kids. And then when she returned to work, the people she started with were now her supervisors, many levels up. So one consequence is lost wages. Women who take off time from work end up making less money over their careers, and the pandemic could worsen that gender pay gap.

But I also spoke to several women this week who study these issues, and they're actually kind of hopeful because they feel like families now are actually talking about these issues. You know, so many families are struggling to work and take care of kids, and now there's more conversations about things like paid family leave and universal child care.

And in the last few years, women had been making strides in the workforce. In January, we learned of this big milestone. More women than men held jobs in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. Of course, the pandemic has erased those gains, Scott, and it's unclear how long it might take for women to come back to work.

SIMON: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks so much for being with us.

HSU: Thank you.

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