What the shecession reveals about how we value women’s work


In January 2020, female workers in the United States hit a major milestone: they held more payroll jobs than men, netting 95% of positions added the previous month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The U.S. economy was thriving at the time, and women, particularly black and Hispanic women, were a part of the fastest growing sectors — retail, hospitality and health care. It was only the second time in history women held the majority of jobs, the first time was a decade prior during the aftermath of the 2008 recession, which saw huge job losses in manufacturing and construction, positions traditionally held by men. While the gender wage gap and the undervaluing of predominately women-held positions was still a concern, it was seen by many as a turning point.  

“It reminds us to take a moment and think about the kind of strides women have made in the labor market. But also, the future of the labor force is going to involve greater women’s equality,” Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist who served in the Obama administration, told NPR at the time.  

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and in March, the entire picture changed. 

Those same sectors that saw such huge gains at the end of 2019, constricted significantly or came to a screeching halt altogether in the first few months of COVID-19. The female unemployment rate peaked in April, hitting 16.1% and remaining above 10% through July. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women have never seen unemployment rates in the double digits since 1948 when BLS began reporting data by gender. 

More recent data show the trends have continued. In December, the BLS monthly jobs report revealed that women lost 156,000 jobs while men gained 16,000. Overall, U.S. women have lost more than 5.4 million net jobs since February 2020, accounting for more than half of overall net job loss since the start of the pandemic. In Colorado, the female labor force decreased by 20,000 in 2020, while the male labor force increased by 9,900, Ryan Gedney, senior economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, recently told 9News. 

Early in the pandemic, the term “shecession” was coined by C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the think tank Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), to describe the disproportionate impact this economic recession is having on women, and the long-term effects that could come with it.

“Persistent and high unemployment will affect women’s economic stability and well-being,” Mason wrote in a recent IWPR report. “It’s not just lost jobs, but a prolonged departure from the labor force, voluntarily or involuntarily, that will have an effect on long-term earnings, home ownership, career advancement and wealth accumulation for women.”

As the pandemic stretches on, it’s continued to affect the female workforce, particularly women of color, many of whom are primary breadwinners. And it’s exacerbated other historic issues like wage inequality and the cost of childcare. It’s confirmed caregiving in our society predominately falls to women, whether it’s in the home taking care of children and elderly relatives, or it’s in the workforce as part of the hospitality, service and health care sectors. For women who run their own business, access to adequate funding from banks and investors, which was already a concern pre-pandemic, has only become more competitive, as many don’t know how long they can stay open. And all of this has left many wondering how and when women will be able to re-enter the workforce successfully.  

“None of these things are new. All of these conversations are things that people have been talking about for decades, if not longer,” says Sabrina Volpone, a diversity researcher at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder, who focuses on barriers women face in the workplace. “Instead of seeing all these women exiting the workforce, it seems like if we would have paid attention to these conversations and thought through some problem-solving, the amplification would not have happened to this extent.”

In the Colorado retail sector alone, women made up for 89% of the total job loss in 2020, while they make up just 48% of jobs in the industry, according to a new Common Sense Institute (CSI) report, set to release Thursday Feb. 18. A pro-business economic and fiscal policy research organization in Denver, CSI has been monitoring the shecession in Colorado particularly. Young women are also being hit hard by job loss, as the unemployment rate for females ages 16 to 24 jumped to 12.5% in the last quarter of 2020. But the pandemic has hit mothers particularly hard — a January CSI report looking at the Colorado labor force participation rate (LFPR) shows one in every 10 mothers that was a part of the labor force in February 2020 was no longer by November.   

“Monitoring data during COVID can at times be hard to find trends; the thing that CSI found, though, by monitoring unemployment rates and labor force participation rates month over month was that women continued to be impacted more than men,” Boulder entrepreneur and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl writes in an email to BW. She’s also on the board of CSI. “Our ongoing research at Common Sense Institute paints a potentially worrisome picture. The pandemic and this recession threaten progress for Colorado’s working women, especially those with kids.” 

It started early in the pandemic, when childcare centers and schools closed, leaving many working moms without adequate childcare solutions. When it became clear it wasn’t safe for most schools to reopen in the fall, women again faced tough choices. According to an IWPR analysis of labor department data, in August and September, 865,000 women left work. At the time, a little more than 200,000 men exited the labor force. 

“Women tend to be the ones then who either need to make hard choices to leave [their jobs] or go more part-time,” says Debbie Pope, executive director of Boulder County YWCA, which runs a flexible drop-in childcare program on a sliding scale. Colorado has the eighth highest childcare cost in the U.S., and Boulder County is more expensive than the state average. In Boulder County, it costs a family of four — two adults, one child in preschool, the other in elementary school — nearly $27,000 for childcare each year.

“We were already at a childcare crisis before the pandemic,” Pope says. 

YWCA has doubled its capacity in the last year, and the program has been used throughout the pandemic for women who are now working from home and may need a couple of days a week to focus on work, but also for lower-income women who work in essential jobs, those who can’t work from home and need consistent, less-expensive childcare. Still, the need far outweighs the demand. 

But not all of the female job loss during the pandemic can be attributed to childcare concerns. 

According to a recent survey of about 1,000 women-owned small businesses in the state, only half said virtual schooling impacted their business this year, while the other half said it had no impact. When it came to staff, the business owners reported little to no shortages or reduced engagement due to childcare challenges. The survey was conducted by Energize Colorado, a volunteer-powered nonprofit that launched in the spring to support small businesses across the state. 

“What was most daunting for us — the gut punch — was that so many businesses who responded to our survey are dealing with a month to six months of runway,” says Kate Hyatt, Energize Colorado’s team lead for the women-owned business segment. “And so it’s just the urgency of those small businesses needing assistance is really clear.”

The survey found that across the board, these businesses said they need help with e-commerce and digital marketing to replace reduced foot traffic. There’s also a huge need for funding — financial assistance like loans and grants as well as rent relief — and many were unaware of the resources available, Hyatt says. 

“COVID has just made a lot of the challenges even more profound, so it exacerbated things that women were already dealing with,” she adds. 

Barbara Brooks and Guadalupe Hirt, cofounders of SecondAct Women, a Denver-based international business network for women 40 and older, began seeing the fallout of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women early in the pandemic, as unemployment began to uptick in their community significantly. 

SecondAct Women cofounders Barbara Brooks and Guadalupe Hirt

“What’s happened is we already had an imposter syndrome going on and lack of confidence as we get older, due to ageism and age bias — society-wise, brand-wise, advertiser-wise, corporate America. I mean, you name it,” Brooks says. “We were already in a pickle and we were already seeing our jobs go away and then the pandemic hits.”

As the recession has continued, the question for SecondAct becomes, how do women re-enter the workforce in positions equal to where they left?  

“We’re stuck between wanting to do more than we ever have, because we’re so excited about this stage of life — as we call it this middle essence,” she says, “but we’re being told you’re too old or no, you’re worth too much, you’re asking for too much.”

If the wage gap between men and women was already an issue before the pandemic, progress now seems even further off, as the shecession continues. In 2018, women across the U.S. earned on average 82 cents for every $1 earned by men, and the gap was more significant for women of color. Here in Boulder County, the contrast is even more drastic than the nationwide average: Pre-pandemic, women with a graduate or professional degree made just $55,585 a year compared to their male counterparts whose median income was $96,199. 

“When we look at gender pay wage gap alone for white women, and this is pre-pandemic, we were already looking at 38 years before we could even get to equal pay. For a black woman and women of color it’s 100 years,” Pope from YWCA says. “This one woman was saying to us, that’s not even my daughter and not even her daughter will be able to be recognized and be in a place where their wage is equitable, that is at the rate it should be.” 

Like it or not, Pope adds, we live in a capitalistic society that values money and yet the roles and jobs women work to keep society going are not being financially acknowledged. According to IWPR, before the pandemic, women spent 37% more time on household and care work than men. 

“We need to make a bigger investment and recognize that most of those positions are held by women and many of our essential backbone jobs are held by women. So we need to start acknowledging that and paying for that,” she says. “And we are going to have to get to a place in our society where we’re changing how we think about gender and the roles that we have to play. … We need to figure out a way to balance responsibilities at home.”

If there’s any silver lining in all this, though, it’s the role community has played in supporting women throughout the economic impact of the pandemic. According to the Energize Colorado survey, about 18% of women-owned businesses reported improved community relations and support, as well as increased resiliency as a result of the pandemic. At SecondAct, “I hadn’t realized how important the role that we’ve been able to play in really helping women understand that they are not alone,” Hirt says. “It’s literally a lifesaver for what we’ve heard from a lot of our women.”

As we come out of the pandemic and begin economic recovery, there’s also an opportunity to implement structural changes that make the labor market more equitable across the board, Valpone says, like increasing diversity and inclusion initiatives and changing work-life balance policies. 

“We have this opportunity to redefine what work looks like, to overcome a lot of these amplified inequalities,” she says. “Let’s take this opportunity and not use a very limited lens that has been used in the past.”

Recent legislative changes in Colorado may help address some of the historic inequities, like the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act that went into effect Jan. 1 and the Paid Family and Medical Leave that voters passed in November, but there’s still more that can be done by organizations, employers and government to ensure women are a robust part of the workforce, as the pandemic loosens its grip and economic recovery begins. 

“Women are an incredibly important part of our economy,” Ganahl says. “We need their insights, passion and expertise. Our companies, our society, is better — much better — for having women at the table.”