The Growing Gap: Gender Pay Equity, Meaningful Work, and Wealth during COVID-19
Meaningful Work & Wealth as a Vital Condition
Meaningful work and wealth is one of the Seven Vital Conditions for Well-Being—things we all need to thrive. Personal, family, and community wealth provides the means for healthy, secure lives. The construct includes good-paying, fulfilling jobs and careers, financial security that extends across the life span, and wealth-building opportunities. Importantly, people’s lives and self-worth flourish when doing productive, rewarding work. The ability to accumulate adequate wealth shapes the living standards not only for individual families and communities, but for generations to come.
COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems, and there is no doubt that the pandemic has had a profound effect on the economy and on individual work and wealth. Most families and communities, especially communities of color and low-income areas, have faced setbacks that could carry through for years, if not generations.
COVID-19 Widened Gender Economic Inequalities
We all know there is a long-standing gender wage gap in the U.S: women working full time are still paid just 83 cents to every dollar earned by men. The pandemic has exacerbated economic inequalities faced by women. Women were hit harder than men by job losses due to the pandemic. While unemployment numbers were relatively equal between men and women in February of 2020 (the month before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic), by September of the same year—as schools were resuming but mostly remotely—80% of the 1.1 million people who exited the workforce were women. In December of 2020, women accounted for 100% of the jobs lost in the U.S., losing a cumulative 156,000 jobs in one month, of which 154,000 were lost by Black women.
“Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” – sociologist Jessica Calarco
The disparities are even more apparent for women of color, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, low-wage workers, and mothers. There was a bigger negative impact on low-wage workers, as overall in 2020, 80% of job losses were among the lowest quarter of wage earners. Data show the jobs recession was hardest on women without college degrees, and Black and Hispanic women. Within the hardest-hit job sector (leisure and hospitality) Black women, Hispanic women, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (both men and women) saw disproportionate losses—due in part to occupational segregation and because these workers are less likely to be found in higher-paid management professions. The pandemic also exacerbated the Motherhood Penalty (the phenomenon by which women’s pay decreases once they become mothers)—one out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was due to a lack of child care—twice the rate among men.
Additionally, women’s employment losses are also likely to recover more slowly than men’s: recent projections estimate that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024—two full years after a recovery for men. In April of 2021 about a year after the start of the pandemic, nearly 1.5 million mothers were still missing from the workforce, and not surprisingly, employment recovery rates are also lower among Black women.
Unemployment data alone do not provide a full picture of the challenges to meaningful work and wealth that women are facing: COVID-19 has worsened existing barriers to workforce participation, such as access to child care, reduced state ability to provide supports by hampering local budgets, and new challenges to safe workforce participation for women who are more likely to be frontline workers. Unpaid care work, which is predominantly done by women and can suppress earning potential, rose dramatically in the wake of stay at home orders, ongoing school and childcare facility closures, and an increased need for elder care. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the child care sector, which was already failing to meet the needs of all families, and 4.5 million child care slots could be lost permanently.
Closing the Gap
Dramatically improving the gender balance would not only benefit women, but the economy at large. Women’s workforce participation enhances economic results, prompts greater investment in social protection, leads to more sustainable peace and advances climate action. In the workplace, compared to men at the same levels, women leaders are stronger people managers and more active champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The risk of mothers leaving the labor force and reducing work hours in order to assume caretaking responsibilities amounts to $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity.
Structural policy change that addresses persistent inequalities is needed to ensure the full recovery and economic security of women. Explore action priorities from Community Commons, the Equitable Economies Library, the Center for American Progress, and The American Association of University Women:
1. Eliminate the gender wage gap and ensure quality benefits, with a particular focus on women of color who experience an even wider wage gap than their white counterparts. Policymakers and advocates should:
Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and eliminate the tipped minimum wage and the subminimum wage for people with disabilities.
Close the gender wage gap by strengthening existing equal pay protections, combatting pay discrimination, and banning the use of salary history.
Expand the use of prevailing wage and benefit standards to cover all jobs that are supported through economic recovery funding.
Protect workers’ right to join a union to increase workers’ bargain power.
Expand access to registered apprenticeships and support targeted hiring programs to reduce occupational segregation.
Reform the unemployment insurance system to protect the financial security of unemployed workers and prepare for a future recession.
2. Create a robust care infrastructure. Women’s lower earnings are due in part to the primary role they play in caring for their families. A robust infrastructure for caregiving support will allow more women to return to work and/or stay in the workforce, while ensuring the economic security of their families. Policymakers and advocates should:
To address some of the structural issues facing women in the workplace, the recently-passed American Rescue Plan included significant expansions of the Child Care and Earned Income Tax Credits.
A policy providing paid leave for all workers would provide everyone with comprehensive, paid family and medical leave, something which currently only 21% of U.S. workers have access to, and that would “yield millions of jobs, billions in wages, and trillions in wages.”
Establish high-quality, affordable child care and universal preschool by increasing federal assistance.
Increase funding for long-term supports and services.
Ensure care workers and early educators have quality jobs with fair pay and workplace benefits and protections.
3. Create strong workplace protections. Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace unless they are free from discrimination and other unjust employment practices. Policymakers and advocates should:
Improve and enforce robust health and safety protections.
Strengthen and enforce protections against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, which are especially important to ensure women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities are treated equally and fairly in the workplace.
Expand employment protections and benefits to nontraditional workers, including part-time workers, independent contractors, and temporary workers.
Implement flexible workplace policies and fair scheduling requirements.
4. Address gaps in equity, protections, and data for LGBTQ+ people, especially transwomen, femmes, nonbinary people, and LGBTQ+ people of color. Policymakers, researchers, and advocates should:
Push for the full range of genders, beyond the male-female binary, to be included in gender pay activism, research, and data collection. Update all forms, surveys, and reports to include the full spectrum of genders and nonbinary pronouns.
Improve workplace protections for transgender and nonbinary people, including implementing anti-discrimination policies, coming out policies, and pronoun use policies.
Push for policies to address youth homelessness, which disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color, and diminishes their employment opportunities.
These solutions provide a guide for policymakers and change-makers to center women in recovery efforts by ensuring immediate relief and long-term economic reforms, including support for caregiving and strong workplace protections and benefits. Browse the resources below to learn more.
Sloan Gingg (she/her) is the Director of Communications and Strategic Outreach at IP3, and a contributing editor at Community Commons.