The perception that we’re in the midst of a “she-cession” — in which women have lost jobs at a higher rate than men — has not been borne out. And this winter, more mothers have returned to paid work, bringing them closer to the employment levels of fathers, a new analysis of census data shows.
In April, the number of mothers who were actively working and living with school-aged children plummeted 22% from the previous April, and the number of fathers who were actively working fell 15.5%, the data shows. But by late fall, enough mothers had returned to paid work that the decline among mothers and fathers was about equal, 7% below the year before.
“Neither of them have achieved pre-pandemic levels of active work, but mothers are no longer disproportionately affected,” said Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist at the Census Bureau and a co-author of the new analysis.
Still, just about a quarter of children in the United States are back in school full time, and many parents’ child care responsibilities haven’t lessened. “In some sense, we should be more concerned,” she said. “There are still kids to take care of and all the work to be done.”
Mothers have always been less likely than fathers to be employed. In January compared with one year earlier, there were 1.4 million fewer mothers who were actively working and living with school-aged children, compared with 1 million fewer fathers, according to the analysis. But as mothers have returned to work, fathers’ employment has stayed flat.
In general, the employment crisis is affecting men and women at similar levels, despite the focus on its effect on women. Unlike most recessions, including 2008, which have been harder on men, this one has hit fields where many women work, like hospitality, health care and government. When schools and child care centers closed, vastly more mothers than fathers took on the responsibilities of child care and remote learning.
But this narrative overlooks the extent to which the pandemic has also affected men’s employment. As of December, men and women were unemployed at the same rate: 6.7%. As of January, the share of the working-age population that was employed had dropped the same amount for men and women: 3.6 percentage points from the year before. The sectors that have been hit hardest, like restaurants and retail, are about half male. In other rich countries, data also suggests that women have not taken a larger labor market hit than men.
“The ‘she-cession’ thing is frustrating,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore, an investment firm. “It’s totally fair that this is a different recession for women than in the past. But the data shows men are hurting, too, just in different ways.”
The pandemic has been distinctly difficult for women, particularly mothers — Vice President Kamala Harris this month called their job losses a “national emergency.” Women are already at a disadvantage in pay and promotions. Their progress in the labor force, decades in the making, may have been erased by the recession.
Mothers were much likelier than fathers to leave work because of school closures and caregiving responsibilities, and a variety of data shows that they are doing significantly more of the additional child care, education and housework during the pandemic.
Now, as more have returned to paid work, they are adding to the unpaid work they are already doing at home: “When we say moms are catching up to dads, that says nothing about how hard it is,” Heggeness said.
When lockdowns began in the spring, the exodus of mothers from paid work was fast and large. By April, nearly half of mothers living with school-aged children weren’t working. Unemployment remains high. But there could be a few reasons more mothers are working now.
The analysis looked at whether parents had a job or not, but not at how many hours they worked, so some mothers might have returned to part-time or gig jobs that paid less than they earned before.
They might have been more able to work as parts of the country began to reopen after the lockdowns. In some places, their children returned to school in the fall, or their employers reopened.
Also, after the initial, acute stage of the pandemic passed, they might have made new child care arrangements so they could earn a paycheck.
A few weeks before the pandemic hit, Melissa Colbourne went on medical leave from her job as a case manager for a child care agency. She had planned to be out for two months, but when schools closed, she extended her leave through the summer. She is a single mother, and her daughter Alyssa, now 9, was at home.
In the fall, she returned to work. Because schools are still closed in Los Angeles, where they live, she started sending Alyssa to a subsidized day care where she does remote school.
“I have a car note, rent, groceries to pay for, bills, so I can’t just up and quit,” said Colbourne, 37. “I think that’s what it is with a lot of African American women. A lot of us don’t have a lot of family we can depend on.”
Detailed data has not been available on the experience of parents during the pandemic, so researchers have tried various methods to determine the effects. The census analysis examined data about parents living with school-aged children. It excluded parents of infants and toddlers, an age when mothers are less likely to work in general. It also excluded parents not living with their children because the data is unavailable, and custodial parents are more likely to be involved in daily child care.
The analysis looked at parents who were actively working, excluding those employed but on leave. Many more mothers than normal are using paid or unpaid leave to cope with the child care crisis. (This is a different approach than more commonly reported employment numbers, which leave out people who are not looking for work, such as mothers who have stopped working until schools reopen, and count people on most kinds of leave as being employed.)
Though mothers are facing unusual challenges, the census analysis also shows the ways in which they have been affected by the same forces as other workers. It found that mothers who exited the workforce were largely from the service sector, which is where most of the job losses have been.
More than parental status or gender, education has been most decisive in who has lost jobs during the pandemic, said Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard. People with college degrees are more likely to have been able to work from home, to work for employers that have stayed in business or to be able to afford additional child care.
“The existence of children was never as important as being low-educated in sectors that were hard hit,” she said. “I’ve looked at this 100 different ways, and the existence of kids is not as great as the fact that this is just a horrific recession, affecting everyone.”