The Toll of COVID-19 on Women in the Workplace
“We can do it!”––the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter looms over girls and women in schools and workplaces alike. But can they really do it? Even as higher education and male-dominated industries have become more accessible for women, the pillars of the patriarchy stand tall with the wage gap and the glass ceiling. This has only been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for women with intersecting identities.
For much of human history, women helped their husbands with menial agricultural tasks and domestic or housework. With the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s came a shift to working in factories, primarily in the textiles and clothing industries. The start of World War II marked a crucial turning point in the available opportunities for working women. With the lack of men in factories and the rise of the women’s rights movement in the 1920s, suddenly, women felt empowered to take on jobs previously held by men. While the conclusion of the war did force many women back into traditionally feminine jobs, the number of women in the workplace started to rise. The civil rights movement of the 1960s also ushered in a number of legal protections for women in the workplace including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, ensuring that women and men receive equal pay for equal work, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex. With the 1970s, the United States saw an explosive growth in the number of women entering the workforce, exacerbated by rapidly advancing technology and automation that reduced the dangers and physical strength requirements associated with many jobs. Women’s participation in the labor force peaked in 1999 with 60% and has been declining ever since due to a variety of factors.
It is important to acknowledge that while there are laws in place against pay and employment discrimination, the wage gap and glass ceiling undeniably persist.
The wage gap refers to “the disparity between what men and women earn for doing the same work”. Political debates about the gender pay gap emerged in the 1860s with many early suffragists demanding equal pay hand-in-hand with access to ballots. Unfortunately, though the 19th Amendment passed nearly one hundred years ago, women continue to fight for equal compensation today. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 in theory guaranteed the same pay for “jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions” regardless of gender, but also allowed for exceptions for seniority or merit. This is especially problematic because merit is a subjective assessment that may be unduly influenced by factors such as gender, and this can also affect promotions and determining seniority. Today, white women earn 82 cents for each dollar that a man earns, and this discrepancy is even larger for women of color.
Similarly, the glass ceiling refers to “an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from being promoted to managerial and executive-level positions within an organization.” This term was first popularized by a 1986 Wall Street Journal article about corporate hierarchy and barriers to upward mobility. In 1991, the Department of Labor created the Glass Ceiling Commission to identify these barriers and propose policies and solutions to the glass ceiling by promoting corporate diversity initiatives and recruitment. Consequently, many point to outliers such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vice President Kamala Harris to show that the ceiling has been shattered, but unfortunately it holds strong––according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, women accounted for 55.9% of the labor force but only held 29.9% of chief executive or managerial positions at the end of 2020.
Women of color and LGBTQ+ people experience these effects uniquely compared to white cis-gendered women. While white women earn 82 cents to the dollar, Black women earn 61 cents and Hispanic women earn an abysmal 53 cents to the white man’s dollar. For women of color, the glass ceiling is more of a “concrete ceiling”––women of color make up only 4% of chief executive or managerial positions. Conversely, LGBTQ+ individuals have only recently been afforded protections under the Civil Rights Act in 2020. LGBTQ+ women specifically make up 2.3% of the workforce in the United States but only 0.6% of chief executive or managerial positions, and they also disproportionately experience harassment and microaggressions.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in dramatic unemployment all across the board, but women were particularly hit hard. Women lost a net one million more jobs than men, and specifically in the month of December, women of color accounted for all of the job losses. In other words, every single person that filed for unemployment in December of 2020 was a Black, Latina or Asian woman. This disproportionate effect on women is primarily because the COVID-related job losses targeted the service and hospitality industries where women are overrepresented. Additionally, the shutdown of schools and childcare services across the country has forced many women to voluntarily exit the labor force and become caregivers. Some policies that have been proposed to address this have included creating robust care infrastructure and social safety nets such as expanding childcare and paid maternal leave, ensuring fair and equal wages and quality benefits and creating strong workplace protections from harassment and discrimination.
Ultimately, vaccine distribution and growing herd immunity may rectify much of the job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, but women, specifically women with intersecting identities, will continue to face barriers and discrimination in the workplace without dramatic institutional changes. Fortunately, as education and conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion continue to happen, and as the government, corporations and society continue to challenge stereotypes and enact policy, there will come a day when women will be able to definitively declare that indeed, “we can do it!”.