According to research by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, predictions of an exodus of women from the workforce in the age of COVID have not come true.
In a recent working paper, economics professor Henry Lee reports that women largely remained in the workforce during the first year and a half of the pandemic despite health problems, increased labor demands time and increased care commitments.
“There was enormous tension and stress in the first months of the pandemic and in the first year, but in fact the women on the whole persisted,” Goldin said. “It wasn’t that the tensions and anxieties of the pandemic were great because women gave up. They were great because women stayed in the workforce.
Her paper, published by the National Bureau of Economics Research, challenges reports such as McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org’s 2020 “women in the workplace” finding that one in four women considered quitting their job.
The figure was an expression of the “stresses, anxieties and frustrations” of the pandemic, Goldin said. “It was the first moment in a very long time in American history when we had the collective feeling that the economy was truly more dependent on women than ever before.”
Goldin’s analysis, which uses data from the American Time Use Survey, the Current Population Survey and other sources, finds that education, not gender, was the main distinction between people who kept their jobs and those who haven’t amid the economic shockwaves of the pandemic.
For women in particular, the difference was striking. Those without a college degree quit their jobs at almost twice the rate of those who did. Women with college degrees were more likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home, Goldin says. Even though they spent far more time supervising children and caring for elderly parents than in pre-pandemic times, their jobs shielded them from economic volatility and health risks, his research found.
The economic impact of the pandemic has hit black and Hispanic women, mothers of young children, caregivers of parents, and women who lacked the ability to work remotely.
“These women were disproportionately found in industries that were shut down by states at the start of the pandemic and then saw their density and demand reduced for much of 2020,” including salons, restaurants, retail retail, child care centers and hotels, Goldin said.
She noted that black women were more likely to work in service occupations before the pandemic and, therefore, were more likely to be fired or laid off in its first few months. They were also more likely to struggle with illness or family responsibilities, which made returning to work more difficult.
Interestingly, the number of women with a university degree and children under 4 who were “at work” was almost 4 percentage points higher in spring 2021 than in spring 2018, while mothers young children without a university degree recorded a decline of 4.4%. points of their “at work” status over the same period. Goldin speculated that new mothers who could work from home and would otherwise have left the workforce “decided to stay.”
Goldin stressed that the pandemic-era pressures on women and families are real and should not be ignored. The issues noted by the McKinsey/LeanIn.org survey and other metrics point to a need for bigger changes to help parents, including more robust childcare infrastructure.
“In the United States, we have a crazy quilt of after-school and child care programs,” she said. Governments and businesses “could do something more logical, because childcare is exactly what we need now to have the most efficient workplaces.”
As for the office, Goldin said the pandemic may have offered silver linings to women as managers adopted more flexible policies. “We learned a tremendous amount about how to reduce the cost of flexibility,” she said.
But she also warned of the pitfalls that could arise as part of a “new normal” for women: “We want to make sure we don’t create female enclaves of remote work that stand in the way of advancement. , as part-time work has often done. To reinforce gender equity, it would be good if men were also encouraged to work a hybrid schedule.”
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