The Gender Gap in Pandemic Job Losses Has Been Wildly Exaggerated

Jobs data casts doubt on the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic is uniquely setting women back. 


For more than a year, the U.S. has been flooded with gloomy headlines and dire predictions about women and work. "The pandemic is devastating a generation of working women," opined one Washington Post writer in February. Citing data showing that 2.5 million women dropped out of the workforce since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vice President Kamala Harris said "the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk."

Harris called it a "national emergency"—albeit one that could be fixed by greenlighting the Biden administration's coronavirus spending plan.

And so the narrative typically goes: women's employment prospects are in crisis; the way out is passing the Democrats' preferred economic policies. (See Matt Welch in Reason's June print issue for more on this rhetoric.)

But the magnitude of this gender gap has never been as great as many have made it out to be. And recent data cast further doubt on the "she-cession" narrative. At the end of April 2021, the unemployment rate for women was slightly lower than the unemployment rate for men. And the women's labor force participation rate had recovered almost as much as the men's rate had.*

Just How Big Are These Gender Gaps Now? 

To read headlines about gender and job losses, one might get the impression that U.S. women are faring drastically worse on the coronavirus-era employment front than men are. Yet such losses have never been as drastically gendered as many doomsayers let on.

"Labor force participation—defined as all civilians working full or part time, as well as those who are unemployed but looking for work—fell dramatically for both genders between March and April 2020," noted Gallup. In April 2020, men's labor force participation was at 97.8 percent of its February 2020 level and women's labor force participation was 96.9 percent of its February 2020 level—a gender gap of just 0.9* percentage points.

By February 2021, labor force participation for both sexes had ticked back up somewhat. And while women were still seeing a less full recovery, the gap was again less than one percentage point. Compared to February 2020, men's February 2021 labor force participation was 2.2 percent smaller and women's was 3.1 percent smaller.

That's not nothing—"the gap in labor force changes amounts to roughly 493,000 more women than men being absent from the labor force since the pandemic began," Gallup pointed out in early March. But it's also not evidence that women have been uniquely devastated by pandemic-related job losses, especially when—contra previous economic downturns—many of the circumstances that initially created the job losses will remedy quickly as life returns to a more normal pace.

Indeed, that already seems to be happening, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In April 2021, the labor force participation rate for U.S. men 20 and older was 69.8 percent, down from 71.6 percent in February 2020. For women, it was 57.2 percent in April, down from the 59.2 percent in February 2020. So, while women's labor force participation was lower than men's at the start of the pandemic and still is, women aren't far behind men at reaching their pre-pandemic participation level, with the April 2021 labor force participation rate for men 1.8 percentage points lower and the rate for women down 2 percentage points.*

The labor force participation rate is a separate measure than the unemployment rate, which is concerned with how many people are out of work and actively seeking a job. On unemployment, U.S. women are also faring better than their male counterparts (though "better" here does come with some caveats, since unemployment numbers don't include people out of a job and not seeking a new one).

In April 2021, the unemployment rate for U.S. men ages 20 and older was at 6.1 percent, down 7 percentage points from its April 2020 peak. For women ages 20 and older, it was at 5.6 percent—down 9.9 percentage points since the previous April.

Put another way, women's unemployment rate is now just 2.5 percentage points higher than it was in pre-pandemic times, while men's unemployment rate is 2.9 percentage points higher.

The Truth Behind the Panic 

It is true that American women initially lost more jobs to COVID-19 than their male counterparts did (in contrast to the typical recession pattern).

In February 2020, the civilian unemployment rate for women age 20 and up was 3.1 percent, according to BLS data. For men, it was 3.2 percent. But by the end of April 2020, the unemployment rate for women had jumped to 15.5 percent, while for men it only jumped to 13.1 percent.

Two explanations for this discrepancy have emerged. First, women tend to outnumber men as the primary caregivers for children and elderly or ailing family members, leaving them more vulnerable to work disruptions when schools and child care centers shut down, when kids need homeschooling, or when relatives need care. Second, women are more highly concentrated in retail, leisure, and hospitality jobs, which were more heavily affected by pandemic-related closures, restrictions, and mandates.

While the first factor has gained the most attention, the second one may be the bigger culprit.

Labor force participation for women with children did indeed drop more than it did for men with children, "consistent with the theory that working mothers disproportionately took themselves out of the labor force to care for children who were no longer able to attend day care or school," noted Gallup. Yet "the drops among women without children and men without children are also sizable," which "suggests that factors other than child care have significantly influenced decisions to leave the workforce."

"Overall, these labor force patterns seem largely tied to occupational differences between women and men," according to Gallup's analysis of BLS data. "Occupations with a higher share of women have exhibited lower labor force participation rates and higher unemployment rates throughout the pandemic."

Either explanation suggests that—for both women and men—the drop is more likely short-term than long-term.

A Call to Arms? 

Given the current state of recovery, "it does not make sense to enact permanent programs, such as government-run paid family and medical leave, subsidized childcare, and universal pre-K with the justification of fixing a COVID -19 disparity that no longer exists," argues Heritage Foundation research fellow Rachel Greszler in a new report.

"Policymakers can do far more to help women and families by removing government-imposed barriers to flexible work, to employer-provided paid family and medical leave, and to accessible and affordable childcare than by adding costly and bureaucratic new programs and upending the labor market in ways that would limit families' incomes and choices," she posits.

Flexible work arrangements are something cited by women and men as one of their top employment wishes. To the extent that the pandemic has normalized more working from home or working non-traditional hours—and done so in a gender-neutral way—it could be good for workers generally, good for working parents, and especially good for women, who in pre-pandemic times were more likely to take advantage of flexible work policies.

"The pandemic caused a massive leap forward in technology that has likely resulted in a larger increase in workplace flexibility and family-friendly policies over the course of one year than would otherwise have been achieved over an entire decade," observes Greszler.

She also points to another positive sign for female workers: "Between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, the median usual weekly earnings of women increased by 5.3 percent, while men's rose by 2.2 percent."

*Correction: This article originally misstated the percentage difference in labor force participation between men and women.

NEXT: Bernie Sanders Is (Mostly) Right About the SALT Deduction

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  1. Sorry, but you’re still playing the identity politics game. Let’s imagine the data did support that women were uniquely devastated by the impact of COVID. So fucking what? I’m sorry, but that’s not an excuse to implement gender specific Government policies. That’s no different than the bullshit Systemic Racism argument.

    If there were identifiable gender specific choices that employers were making (oh shit…layoff time…fire the women) then maybe there’d be a basis for discussing gender specific policies. But statistical gaps are not a legitimate rationale.

    1. This is true and important. Pushing for enforced equality of outcomes is just plain evil.
      But it’s also important to call bullshit when people use made up facts to support their social justice bullshit.

      1. Yeah, I think in this case the rebuttal reporting mainly suffered from being framed in the same way as the original, flawed reporting / speculation.

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    2. Or, not shut all the businesses down in the first place.

    3. systemic girlism

    4. To the extent women have been disproportionately affected, it was because mothers were forced to drop out of the labor pool to care for children due to the closures of schools and virtually all other options for child care outside the home.

      Fixing this is simple. It doesn’t need targeted gender specific programs. What it needs is: Open the fucking schools for full time in-persons instruction for 100% of the student body. Yesterday!.

      1. alternatively moms could be moms and keep the wee ones away from the conformity factories

    5. The Democrats want to literally turn us into a NANNY STATE! The subtifuge is to justify government run daycare. As Ronnie Raygun so eloquently phrased it, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Run for help and hide the children!

  2. Feminists have trouble understanding numbers. What a shock.

    1. “Math is hard.”

      1. And racist! Let’s not forget racist.

      2. There was a speaking Barbie that said, “Math class is tough” but got sunset soon thereafter

  3. Unfortunately for all of us ENB was one of the wemon that kept her job

  4. meh it’s not a news story anymore if it didn’t happen to a chick

  5. Incarceration rates for women vs. men are far more disparate than the employment numbers, just use COVID as an excuse to lock up more women and force them into jobs. Equalizing the prison numbers should provide just enough to balance out the jobs numbers. If not, just pass more COVID restrictions.

    1. Incarceration rates for women vs. men are far more disparate


  6. WSJ had a story about this gender gap, with accompanying storylines that all went the same way……married couple with kids, one or both loses job at beginning of pandemic but guy is the only one with a job after a few months in because wife finds it too difficult to work and be a stay at home mom. That is not a tragedy. It’s called acknowledging that the real world exists and having to set priorities accordingly. The real tragedy is that we are incentivizing deadbeat people who should be working and have no reason not to, i.e. men and single people. But that doesn’t fit with the narrative.

    1. Women choosing to stay at home to care for children are an ideological problem for progressives. Women are supposed to be willing and able to work outside the home at the same percentages men do. If they do not, it is because women are choosing wrong.

  7. There is a gender gap in America’s prisons. Lock up more women or release a lot of men.

    1. Also need to kill more women on the job to even up those numbers with men killed on the job. Stop letting women avoid the really dangerous work.

      1. More women truck drivers, deep sea fishers, and loggers!

        1. Female scuba divers consume ~1/3 less oxygen compared to male divers and require less material to insulate against hypothermia. The major limitation to hyperbaric or underwater welding is keeping the diver/welder underwater. It’s not uncommon to command an annual salary over $250K with relatively little up front education/cost. Of course, between drowning, freezing, electrocution, and explosion, the average life expectancy is something like 40 yrs. old so, of course, the field is something like 99.99% men.

          1. Makes me wonder if any of the guys in my welding classes who were saying they wanted to go that route actually did it, and if they did, of any of them are still alive. It’s been 20 years…

          2. Women also typically have 1/3 less strength – or worse. Underwater or not, you can’t weld two pieces of metal until they have been moved into position. Often that is heavy physical labor. A welder often also has to lug heavy welding equipment around the site. These things don’t get any easier underwater.

            1. Not exactly. Even above ground the welder doesn’t generally hold the two workpieces in place and weld with his third hand, moreover, even on land, the distinction between a 150 lb. man and a 200 lb. man relative to a multi-ton piece of steel is pretty moot. Underwater, this already pretty irrelevant distinction is further diminished, because dry-land welders are usually standing on the ground while underwater welders are not necessarily. Typically, the pieces are lowered into place and the diver(s)/welder only guides them the last inch or two.

              Just as with sports I don’t mean to say that men can’t compete with women (presumably, the near-exclusive male dominance speaks for itself), just that the advantages men usually enjoy are diminished and the advantages that women enjoy are amplified. Similar to synchronized swimming, where things like higher VO2/pulse Ox, bone density, and muscle mass can/do actually work against men rather than working in their favor. Men absolutely can be competitive in synchronize swimming and I’m not saying more men should be synchronized swimming or that we should be doing more of it or that female soccer players or MMA fighters (or whatever) are on par with men, just that men don’t dominate in synchronized swimming because of the conditions against them (or in the case of welding that women aren’t at parity because of other factors like complexity, opportunity costs, risk aversion, etc.).

              1. the distinction between a 150 lb. man and a 200 lb. man relative to a multi-ton piece of steel is pretty moot

                Not to mention that the dry land welders I’ve been around, if the issue requires climbing, contortion, compression, or, for many, pretty much anything outside arm’s reach, the 150 lb. guy is the go to guy.

        2. Linemen, pavers, roofers and general construction. Though more women died at a recent peaceful protest than men.

      2. Funny how of all the occupations mentioned in this particular thread, no one mentioned police and firefighters. People here know their stats and the associated myths.

  8. What can be sold as the left wing narrative will and facts be damned. But you can’t argue their point, you just have to fire back with something else, like hey how come Joe Biden hasn’t done a thing to hire women etc etc. Keep putting leftie off balance.

  9. “it does not make sense to enact permanent programs, such as government-run paid family and medical leave, subsidized childcare, and universal pre-K with the justification of fixing a COVID -19 disparity that no longer exists,” argues Heritage Foundation research fellow Rachel Greszler

    Oh, Rachel. It makes *perfect* “sense”.

  10. C’mon man! We gotta stop discriminating against birthing persons and potential birthing persons.

    1. C’mon man! We gotta stop discriminating against birthing persons and potential birthing persons abortion rights holders.


  11. Man, compare that sad, noodle-armed Rosie image on the rock with the rope-muscled version in the classic portrait, or the thicc one that Normal Rockwell painted who looks like she could steamroll an offensive lineman.

    Can’t think of a more fitting parallel between that generation and our modern Clown World.

    1. Good catch. I’m reminded of an old Dilbert book title/cover “Still Pumped from using the Mouse”


    2. Took the words right out of my mouth. Comparing the whining and micro-grievances this generation of women (and men) put forward with my mother and grandmother is sadder every day.

      Im always reminded of the concept that “Hard times make hard men, hard men make easy times, easy times make weak men.” and so on. We are living in an easier, cushier, decadent time and it has created a generation of absolute pussies that are paralyzed by imagined micro-aggressions, while our elders faced actual economic collapse, starvation, world war, real racism, and so on.

      That rock is a perfect analogy.

      1. “Hard times make hard men, hard men make easy times, easy times make weak men.”

        Cofactor quote:
        A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools.

        Easy times make separating scholars from warriors seem sensible such that eventually hard times will be combatted by cowards and fools.

  12. Gender pay gap greatly “Exaggerated”. Outdoor transmission of virus greatly “Exaggerated”. Reason still doesn’t get it.

  13. ENB misses the point entirely, if men are unemployed they can’t pay for women.

    1. And not just for sammiches.

      1. Tacos?

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