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Pandemic Effects on the Women's Economy: Are We Going Back in Time?

International institutions like the United Nations and the World Economic Forum have issued dire warnings over the past two months: the pandemic is poised to set women back 50 years. So far, world leaders are not paying attention.

These forecasts of doom may sound like overreaction to you. And you may think, well, doesn't someone suffer in every recession? Weren't men hit harder in the "mancession" of 2008? The answer to both those questions is yes. In fact, most recessions hit men harder than women.

The pandemic does pose an existential threat to women's economic autonomy, however. And there is a real risk that the clock will suddenly be set back to the world before 1970. That's because the economic shock we are living through doesn't just hit women disproportionately by industry or job type—the contagion's effect on childcare provision gives this crisis the power to take women out permanently.

The central proposition of my new book, The Double X Economy, is that women suffer from the same pattern of economic inequality in all nations and the same mechanisms have been used to keep them in their place. We seeing the truth of this observation playing out now all across the world.

Worldwide, women are concentrated in the very industries that shut down first—like retail, for instance. So, once the pandemic hit, a significantly larger segment of women lost their jobs. Because women are disproportionately in part-time work, they were among the first to be let go. Women are especially concentrated in child care and education—holding upwards of 70% of those jobs in most countries—which not only shut down early, but may be the last to reopen.

Here is where the crux of the threat lies. Beyond those who lost jobs in daycares and schools lies the enormous number of working mothers who need a place for their kids in order to be in the workforce at all. The challenges of preparing an environment safe enough for a group of children to gather in a pandemic are enormous—and nobody wants their kid in an unsafe place. However, the longer it takes for community leadership to sort this out, the more disengaged from the workplace women become, the more likely furloughs will turn into job losses, and the more permanent the damage to their economic prospects.

But this issue is not being dealt with in any focused or responsible way. Take, for instance, the city of Boston, near where I live. When the mayor began planning the city's recovery, lots of parents and childcare professionals wrote to him, begging that he pay attention to childcare in his planning. He brushed them off—because child care can't possibly be important to the economy, right? Then, when the recovery plan came out, the public health planners issued guidelines for daycare/education institutions that required more staff be hired, but reduced the number of children accommodated. There was no way that these little businesses could stay afloat—unless they raised tuition. So, suddenly, mothers in Boston are faced with the prospect that this squeeze on the market will increase the cost of daycare, but also reduce the number of slots. This, in a town where such services were already extremely scarce and expensive. So after the pandemic, Boston mothers will be squeezed even harder than before. More of them will have to stay home and many of them will have to stay home longer than what they hoped. Some of them will always stay home.

What should have happened? The city first should have realized how central childcare was to their recovery. An educated guess says women are at least half the Boston workforce and produce about 40% of Boston's GDP—because those are the numbers for the US as a whole. Ignoring their needs when planning a recovery is just nuts—where is growth going to come from if you are setting aside half your economic resources? So, there should have been grants given to the daycare centers to tide them over while they provided safe space. I say grants because these are not just ordinary businesses, they are essential.

Why not loans? This is another place where gender inequality is the same all over the world: the criteria banks use to make loans are intrinsically discriminatory, no matter how loudly those guys declare them to be objective. There is no way the banks were going to lend to daycares in this situation, even if the money came from the government.

What about the fathers? Well, what we are seeing in the countries where there is data is that mothers are spending more time on childcare than fathers, even when both are working from home. They are losing their jobs more often, having more hours taken away from them. The only instance in which men are sharing the work at home equally is when the father is out of a job and the mother is still working full-time. The impact of care within the home is as retrograde as the decisions being made outside. We are seeing the outlines of a cultural backslide.

At the national level, there is also bad news. In the early days of the pandemic, the Australian national government enacted free childcare in order to keep people, especially the more than 90% of healthcare staff who are women, at work. There was some talk that it might be a watershed moment in which leadership would see that childcare is economically important. But no! Recently that government has ended the free childcare and instead made $425 million available to the construction industry.

Construction? Seriously? Not services or any of the hardest-hit industries? The hardest-hit industries are female-dominated, so the government apparently did not want to put the money where it's needed, but instead to be sure it went where the men are (construction is like 95% male or something). That doesn't even make economic sense; it's just pure sexism.

The lesson that political and economic leadership should be taking away is that childcare is not some frivolous luxury for women who just don't want to work, but is essential economic infrastructure. I am seeing no evidence that world leaders (or local ones, for that matter) are listening. The implications for women are dire. And that, I'm sure, is why the international institutions are trying to bang the drum as loudly as they can.


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