May 9, 2021
Mother’s Day Thoughts in the Wake of COVID
With Mother’s Day upon us, it is time to do what any loving son and husband must, and write about that sentimental topic of labor force outcomes for women. Of course, this year we have to dwell heavily on COVID and what it means to American women. The experience of women has differed from that of men in some key respects—some better and some worse.
To begin, it is useful also to set down some pretty straightforward facts. First, women engage in formal work at a lower rate than men, but it is not a spectacular difference. Men work at about a 10 percent higher rate than do women. Most of this is attributable to at-home childcare, which women do at higher rates than men. Second, women on average earn less than men, but nearly all of that difference is due to the choice of occupation, educational attainment and tenure on the job.
None of these facts suggest there is not job discrimination; there surely is. But, it is equally certain that most of the differences in wages and occupation choice are due to labor market choices. Perhaps we’d all be better off if there were no gender differences in occupational choice, or rates of childcare duties. That is an important discussion. For our purpose, suffice it to say that gender differences in occupational choice have their start long before a young person looks for a job.
COVID led to a major drop in the labor force participation rate of women. After a huge drop off this time last year, it leveled off at 1987 rates. Today, only 56.1 percent of adult women participate in formal labor markets. Men’s labor force participation rate dropped last spring and likewise recovered, but it has now leveled off at just over 67 percent. That is lower than at any pre-COVID time. There are today 3.8 million fewer women working, and 4.2 fewer men employed than at the start of the COVID recession.
The topline labor market effects seem fairly similar when adjusting for labor force participation. But as we look a bit deeper, we begin to see growing differences between the experiences of men and women. In 1979, women were enrolled in college at the same rate as men. By the start of the pandemic, almost 60 percent of four-year college students were women. COVID affected enrollment, with first-year enrollment of women dropping by 2.2 percent, but closer to 7.0 percent for men. When we include two-year colleges, enrollment was down closer to 16 percent.
Women have been doing noticeably better than men in educational attainment for 30 years, but their occupational choices have evolved more slowly. COVID imposed economic effects on sectors with large shares of female employment; education, healthcare, travel and hospitality. Still, it seems women stuck with college plans with more diligence this year. Data on their chosen major track isn’t yet available, but there’s little to suggest it would change dramatically.
We can hope that most of these prospective students took a COVID gap year. If so, we may have better enrollment this fall, which is especially important in states with low levels of educational attainment. But, whatever happens, women fared better than men in the college attendance effects of COVID.
Of course, not all women are mothers, but labor market outcomes during COVID may have been particularly hard on parents. By my reckoning, of the 56 million kids in school, about 11 million live with a single mother, and another 25 to 30 million live with two parents who both work. With about half of the single moms working, that means as schools closed last spring, the families of something like 31 million to 36 million kids were caught in a tough bind. Even if we exclude high school kids, some of whom might be able to fend for themselves at home, this leaves more than 17 million kids needing home supervision. This happened in March 2020, and lasted until June. So, it is hardly a surprise that the employment of women dropped from 74.8 million in February 2020 to a low of 61.5 million in April, just two months later.
The end of summer saw only 40 percent of schools re-opened, and as late as March 2021, only 53 percent of kids were back in classrooms. This meant that single parents (disproportionately moms), along with two-worker families, faced tough choices about job and home life. I don’t have good data on the distributional of effects on parents. But, but if I’ve learned anything in my 50-plus trips around the sun, it is that mothers bore the brunt.
By the way, this is not a critique of schools, whose disproportionate employment of women was a unique challenge not faced by their critics.
It is too early to know the full effect of these changes. What is certain is that COVID will prompt many families to reassess their work and family life balance. I suspect that many millions will shrink their participation in labor markets and will instead spend more time at home—raising and partially educating their children, eating more meals as a family, and watching more little league games.
COVID has offered many lessons, including the fragility of life and the uncertainty of our sense of normality. Given this, it would be unsurprising if many families decide to work less and spend more time together. We should respect these decisions. Doubtless, it will reduce the available formal workforce, which may permanently reflect COVID changes.
The growing educational gains of women and a more equal balance of occupation choice means that a growing share of men will be at home with children. Still, in 2021 it is certain that the biggest share of new stay-at-home parents will be women. Hopefully, businesses can think of ways to more seamlessly allow people to enter and leave work without facing long-term wage penalties. It is surely in their interest to do so before government makes such an attempt. We might also expect that, with more parents at home, our schools and other important local institutions will experience a flood of new talent.
Many of these changes might be welcomed and give us some benefit from an otherwise very difficult year. Whatever other changes COVID brings us, it is certain that America’s mothers deserve a bit of extra pampering after this long pandemic year.
About the Author
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