With women's unemployment sky high, this recession is a 'shecession,' expert says

Women have never before in history been the face of an economic downturn.

May 28, 2020, 8:52 AM

During the coronavirus pandemic, more than 40 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment insurance -- and for the first time in history, the nation's unemployment claims have a largely female, non-white face to them.

While the two previous biggest economic crises in U.S. history -- the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis -- affected men's jobs more than women's, the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately impacting women in the workforce, data shows.

The bleak job numbers for women and the economic uncertainty women now face have put the American economy in a "shecession," according to C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a women-focused think tank.

"The way we think about work and women’s earnings is this idea of a 1950s ‘Mad Men’ era where men are the primary breadwinners and women are stay-at-home, and any income they earn doesn’t really matter," Mason told "Good Morning America." "That’s just not the case and it hasn’t been our reality for a long time, so when women lose jobs, it not only impacts families, it impacts the economy as well."

Of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April, the most recent month for which data is available, women accounted for 55% of jobs lost, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

With women's unemployment sky high, this recession is a 'shecession,'
ABC News Photo Illustration, Getty images

The unemployment rate for adult women is now 15.5%, up from 3% in February. The unemployment rate is even higher for Hispanic adult women, at 20.2.%, and for black adult women, at 16.4%, according to BLS.

By comparison, the unemployment rate for adult men is currently 13%.

Why women are disproportionately impacted

Just a few months ago, in December, women marked a historic achievement when, for the first time in a decade, they surpassed men with the number of U.S. jobs held, according to the Department of Labor.

The reason why women are facing unprecedented unemployment rates during the coronavirus pandemic has both historical and current-day roots, experts say.

Women have long been relegated to service sector jobs, like hospitality, food services and retail -- industries that are now hit hardest by the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, data shows. In those jobs, women also face lower wages, which sets them up for economic uncertainty during a downturn, according to Mason.

"Even though women were more than 50% of the workforce, many of these jobs were not quality jobs or well-paying jobs with benefits, so many women were still living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "During the pandemic, we see that reality come into focus."

In addition, whether a woman is employed or not, the heavy domestic burden that women carry has been laid bare during this pandemic, with women taking on increased tasks at home and reporting even more stress, data shows.

From there, say experts, a hamster-wheel effect often results. Women are historically tasked with carrying the cognitive labor for household activities -- which now includes homeschooling for most parents -- and women already face a gender pay gap where they earn around 80 cents for each dollar their male coworkers make. When household and childcare duties increase, as they have during the pandemic, it's often the woman in opposite-sex couples who takes on the added burden -- which some justify because she is bringing less money into the household.

The demands of childcare placed on women has been brought to the forefront during the coronavirus pandemic as summer camps are canceled, daycare centers close, and questions remain about whether schools will reopen in the fall.

"The thing that keeps me up at night is the childcare issue," said Mason. "If we don’t do something urgent and be really intentional about how we address it, then more women will leave the workforce. That’s just the bottom line."

When women do leave the workforce, whether because they lose their jobs or take time out for personal or family reasons such as childcare, they return to a trajectory of decreased pay over the course of their careers.

"Despite the fact that women were more than 50% of the workforce, employers have not really been responsive to the needs of working women, and it shows in this moment," said Mason. "We have to have an economy that when we recover doesn’t leave women behind."

Estella Flores, right, and Maria Mora, left, look for information in front of the closed California State Employment Development Department on Thursday, May 14, 2020 in Canoga Park, CA.
Brian Van Der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A bright spot for change

Experts including Mason say one positive outcome that could come from this economic downturn is a real chance to make workplace and governmental policies that will help put women on equal footing in the workforce.

"I think women are stepping up and doing their part like they always do, but we as a society need to make sure that we’re supporting women so their careers won’t be stalled, so they don’t lose advancement opportunities and don't lose wages and earnings," said Mason. "This moment provides a real opportunity for the nation, for employers to really think about not only how to bring women into the workforce but how to keep them there."

For one thing, the stay-at-home orders brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have shown many companies that options like remote working and flexible schedules -- long seen as ways to keep women in the workforce -- can work across the board.

"I hope we see that as possible and they create a way for us to institutionalize it," Mason said of adding more flexibility into the workplace. "It’s crazy that women are half of the workforce and we’ve never thought about, well, what would make women stay in the workforce? We know that women have very specific needs in the workforce and it’s not a special accommodation."

The economic slowdown could also give women a chance to pursue their demands in the workforce, according to former Wall Street CEO Sallie Krawcheck, the cofounder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women.

"If we want this to change, nobody cares about this as much as we do," Krawcheck told "GMA." "Just like 100 years ago, nobody gave us a vote. We went out and marched and we got ourselves a vote."

"In business, nobody is giving us the CEO position so we have to make a conscious decision that we’re going to change things," she said. "Maybe the conscious decision is that we’re going to get out and march over a mandated paid maternity leave."

"For women and people of color who are in more senior positions, hire more women and people of color," Krawcheck recommended. "We should be buying from each other. We should be investing in each other."

A woman checks job application information in front of IDES(Illinois Department of Employment Security)/WorkNet center in Arlington Heights, Ill., April 9, 2020.
Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

On the personal finance front, Krawcheck points out that the pandemic has shown again that women need to be more proactive about creating their own financial safety net.

"We talk all the time about the gender pay gap, but there is also a gender wealth gap, which is 32 cents for a man’s dollar," she said. "What we are learning now, as if we didn’t know it before, is that we have to take care of ourselves. As women, we have put off things like financial planning and investing."

What happens next

A full economic recovery in the U.S. will not come quickly and it will likely be even slower for women, according to both Mason and Krawcheck, who note that, "when the world moves backwards, women move backwards more."

The University of Chicago Becker Friedman Institute estimates 42% of people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus shutdown will not get them back quickly.

Industries like retail and hospitality that have a majority of women employees may return differently, and competition in the job market will be stiff as not all jobs return. Some women may also be burdened by debt, overwhelmed with a lack of childcare options, or facing institutional obstacles when it comes to returning to the workforce, the experts noted.

For women who are able to take a step back from their situation and make some changes, here are five tips from Mason and Krawcheck.

1. Do not carry the domestic burden alone.

"That is a very practical thing a woman can do to change things," said Mason. "For some families, they’ve not really had the conversation about how to share the load, so being able to communicate effectively about what it means to participate equally and share responsibilities in the home is really important."

"Make it a conversation," she said.

2. Pay off credit card debt first.

"Even if it means you don’t have an emergency fund, you have to pay off your credit card debt first," said Krawcheck. "If there is an emergency and you don’t have savings, you can use a credit card."

After credit card debt is paid off, Krawcheck recommends saving three to six months of take-home pay in a savings account.

3. Spend 15 minutes a day looking at your finances.

Spending 15 minutes each day putting together a budget and looking at your finances will "give you such a leg up on the other side of this," according to Krawcheck.

"If you can, getting yourself in financial shape where you’re bringing in more than you’re spending, and then getting yourself ready to invest or buy a home, that’s the way to build wealth," she said.

"Whether you have a job or have lost your job, look at what you’re spending money on that isn’t important to you," added Krawcheck. Take a step back. Get in touch with what matters."

4. Network and learn new skills.

The unique circumstances of the pandemic can be a time to step back and examine whether the work you are doing or were doing is what you really want to do, according to both Krawcheck and Mason.

It can also be a time to learn new skills or get more training, two tactics that will help you stand out in a crowded job market, the experts note.

"We saw this in the 2008 recession, that people did return to post-secondary education and pursued other kinds of degrees and training to make themselves more competitive," said Mason.

"We are sort of in the golden age of online education where you’re seeing classes be offered for free or at discounts," added Krawcheck. "Learning to code, this is the time. Learning about marketing analytics, this is the time."

Another way to stand out in a crowded job market is to "network, network, network, network," recommends Krawcheck.

"This is not a time you’ll likely be getting a job by seeing it on LinkedIn and being one of 6,000 applicants. The supply and demand is out of balance right now," she said. "Network now so you have some forward momentum."

5. Be kind to yourself.

"It’s really literally impossible to work 40 hours a week and also soldier 100% of the caretaking of families," said Mason. "[Women need to] cut themselves some slack and possibly find time for self-care, even if it’s just taking a 10-minute walk around the block or a longer shower. Just give ourselves a break."