Boston Fed report: COVID-19 economic crisis continues to hurt working mothers the most
Women with school-aged children have been slower to regain employment or return to the labor force
Studies of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic show that women have experienced more job losses than men and more departures from the labor force. As a result, the gender gaps in employment and labor force participation that existed before the pandemic have grown even larger. Research also finds that the crisis has been particularly harmful to working women with school-aged children, because in most cases they have borne the child care burden following school closures.
A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston examines more recent data and supports these findings, which distinguish the pandemic from previous economic crises, when employment fell more for men than women. The report concludes that reopening schools likely will play a pivotal role in narrowing the gender gaps that have widened over the past year.
The report, “COVID-19 and the Labor Market Outcomes for Prime-Aged Women,” notes that the employment and labor force participation levels are still well below their pre-pandemic levels for both genders. It finds that the preexisting labor force gaps between prime-aged (25 to 54) men and women grew early in the pandemic and have remained widened primarily because women with school-aged children who lost or left their jobs have regained employment or returned to work at a lower rate than men. (See figure.)
“While the widened gender gap for women without children started to close after the summer months, the larger gap for mothers persists,” writes the report’s author, Boston Fed senior economist and policy advisor María J. Luengo-Prado. “The safe reopening of in-person K–12 education is critical for this group of women to regain employment as the economy recovers.”
Before the pandemic, the gender gap in prime-age employment – measured by comparing the employment-to-population ratios for men and women in the 25–54 age group – was about 11 percentage points (86% for men and 75% for women). The gender gap in labor force participation was about 12 percentage points. As of February 2021, each of those gaps had grown roughly 2 percentage points, and, according to the Boston Fed report, most of that growth can be attributed to the widening of the gaps between men and women who have school-age children in their households. Those gender gaps were 19 percentage points (employment) and 19.5 percentage points (in the labor force) before the pandemic.
The Boston Fed report uses data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics that samples about 60,000 U.S. households. The report focuses on respondents aged 25 to 54 and uses data collected through February 2021. It uses regression analysis that controls for individual characteristics and enables a study of the outcomes for comparable men and women.
The report finds that by July 2020 the employment gap between men and women with children in their households had widened by 2.7 percentage points, while the gap between men and women without children had grown by only 1.3 percentage points. By February 2021, the gender gap in employment for women without children had returned to its pre-pandemic size, but the gap in employment for women with children was still 2.2 percentage points larger than it was a year earlier, before the start of the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic, the gender gap in employment grew in part because women were disproportionately represented in occupations hit hardest by the pandemic – those that could not be performed remotely and in which workers were in close contact with each other or customers. A disproportionate number of women also were employed in occupations that initially suffered large job losses but have recovered strongly since the end of the summer. According to the report, the return of the latter jobs likely accounts for the narrowing of the employment gap between women and men who don’t have children in their households.
School closings seem to have had an equal effect on the employment of women and men without children, which suggests that other state-level restrictions that accompanied the school closures had a more general effect on employment. However, the closures had a significantly stronger effect on the employment of women with children versus men with children. “Occupation differences help account for the widening of the gender gap in employment of childless individuals in the early part of the pandemic,” Luengo-Prado writes, “but school closings are more important for explaining the later gap.”
The author finds no evidence that women without children left the labor force at higher rates than comparable men without children, but the gender gap in labor force participation was approximately 2.1 percentage points greater in February 2021 than in February 2020. “Regarding labor force participation,” Luengo-Prado writes, “the widening of the gender gap is driven by women with children, and school closings likely account for this result.”
Read the full report.
María J. Luengo-Prado is a senior economist and policy advisor in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Research Department.
If you are a member of the media and have questions about this work or would like to connect with Luengo-Prado, please contact Boston Fed Lead Communications Strategist, Treacy Reynolds, Treacy.Reynolds@bos.frb.org.