What is the she-cession?

AboveBoard | Apr 27, 2022

Lessons from the COVID-19 recession’s impact on working women

In May 2020, the outlook for working women seemed dismal.

Unemployment data at the time showed that women accounted for more than half of the 20 million jobs lost in April 2020, leading many to the conclusion that a female recession or she-cession was underway. 

She-cession, a moniker coined by the President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research C. Nicole Mason, refers to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate adverse effects on women in the workforce. The nickname is a nod to the man-cession of 2008-2009.

The she-cession is real. In fact, a 2021 working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) points to the reality that “COVID-19 crisis employment losses have been larger for women than for men." But the story of the she-cession is larger than just employment losses. Research from Harvard University's Claudia Goldin, an economic historian and labor economist, confirmed the she-cession phenomenon while also offering further insight into how women, particularly women of color and/or women without college degrees, were affected. 

Understanding the she-cession matters. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced female recession offers unparalleled insight into strategies and best practices that employers can implement in order to support women and their flourishing both inside and outside the workplace.

The she-cession’s impact on families

Data from the first nine months of the pandemic “points to a significant employment penalty for women throughout the pandemic, especially for the mothers of young children,” according to the IMF. Their research goes on to confirm that “women with young children have been the most affected by the crisis,” making up 45 percent of the increase in the employment gender gap.

“As schools closed at the onset of the crisis, this group of women experienced larger employment losses than other women and men with or without young children. These women also witnessed a milder recovery in employment than others over the subsequent months. Further, the less educated among these women experienced greater job losses,” according to the IMF’s research.

While childcare hours increased for both working custodial fathers and mothers, there was an “exceedingly heavy load” on working women. The demands put on caretakers due to the COVID-19 pandemic were extraordinary, and many of the pressures placed on women compounded, especially for the many who managed to keep their jobs.

Resiliency during the female recession came with a mental toll health toll. Employed parents reported feelings of apathy, fatigue, and burnout in a December 2021 McKinsey & Company survey.

“The real story of women during the pandemic is that they remained in the labor force and stayed on their jobs, as much as they could,” according to Goldin.

The she-cession’s educational divide

Ultimately, researchers found that the COVID-19 pandemic's effects on employment losses were more pronounced "between education groups rather than between genders within educational groups."

The educational gap is a particularly wide chasm for women, who made up about 60 percent of employees in fields that were largely shut down by the pandemic. These industries include the hospitality and travel sectors as well as the provider of many in-person services, like restaurants and retail. 

For the most part, educated workers have the option to work remotely and thus more safely, leaving employees without workplace alternatives in a dilemma. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that about three million workers who exited the workforce during the pandemic plan to stay out indefinitely. Of these workforce dropouts, most "tend to be women, lack a college degree and have worked in low-paying fields."

These losses were acutely felt by Black women, according to both the IMF and Goldin's findings. “Black women who were not college graduates were hardest hit in terms of their employment and their labor force participation," Goldin wrote.

Lessons from the she-cession

The good news is that in 2021, nearly a million women returned to work, according to reporting from The 19th. 

While the pandemic’s female recession brought to the forefront some of the main challenges working women face, it also highlighted some ways in which communities and organizations can support the women in their ranks, including:

  • Offering flexible work arrangements where possible, e.g. flexible hours, remote work, etc. Where such measures are not possible, implementing public health procedures that keep workers safe.
  • Expanding parental or sick leave policies, including for employees who are taking care of family members.
  • Limiting additional childcare burdens, e.g. providing on-site or subsidized childcare. 

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