A woman and her infant child sit at a desk working on a laptop

The pandemic’s effect on women

Mar 16, 2021
Empower Insights

Why the economic impacts of COVID-19 haven’t been equal — and why there’s reason for hope for the future

Working women have struggled throughout the pandemic to balance work and family life, and many held jobs that did not lend themselves to telecommuting when stay-at-home orders took effect. As 2021 begins, women remain more pessimistic than men about the economy overall and their own financial prospects according to recent research conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of Empower Retirement and Personal Capital.

Our survey1, which polled working Americans and retirees in November and December 2020, found that just 16% of women say they are more optimistic about the stock market than they were last year compared to 26% of men. Fewer women feel optimistic or in charge of their finances — 33% versus 44% of men.

Why women were particularly vulnerable

The businesses most impacted by social-distancing measures — including restaurants and retailers — tend to employ more women. So when stay-at-home orders began shuttering businesses in early 2020, the majority of workers who lost their jobs were women.2

Compounding the effects of those losses was the fact that before the pandemic, in 2018, almost half of all working women in the U.S. were working in low-paying jobs,3 earning a median wage of only $10.93 per hour. Low wages, combined with a lack of labor protections4 or traditional unemployment protections4 in fields dominated by women (such as home healthcare and food service), left many women especially vulnerable to the economic havoc caused by the pandemic.

Given these realities, it’s not surprising that our survey found more women reporting they “barely have their head above water” — 31% as opposed to just 19% of men. Women are also less confident in their ability to build emergency savings — 55% compared to 69% of men. And just 62% of working women are confident in their job security compared to 72% of men.

How gender roles at home contributed

When schools and daycare centers closed, many parents were left without any outside childcare, making the balance between work and family life more difficult than ever. Many single mothers who were unable to work remotely were forced to stop working5 in order to care for their children. But even in two-parent households with both parents working, women are more likely to provide the majority of childcare,6 making full-time work during the pandemic a significant challenge. Some experts fear that by not working for the duration of the pandemic, many professional women will set their careers back significantly7 and find it difficult to reenter the workforce.

graphic - 54% of women are confident they can retire when they want, compared to 67% of men.

Why there is room for hope

Fortunately, the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women has received a lot of attention and led to some efforts to address the disparity. When a second relief package was passed at the end of 2020, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s renewed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) emphasized lending to businesses owned by women, minorities and other groups underrepresented in the first round of PPP recipients.

On the home front, the pandemic has pushed many employers to become more flexible with telecommuting, which could open up greater employment prospects for working mothers. Additionally, the pandemic saw men take on a greater share of childcare, which could mark a cultural shift.

That said, our survey found that only 54% of women are confident they can retire when they want compared to 67% of men. Building confidence starts with establishing an emergency fund, contributing to tax-advantaged retirement plans and paying down personal debt. Get started today.

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1 Back to (Financial) Basics How Americans are responding after an unprecedented 2020.

2 Eleni X. Karageorge, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “COVID-10 recession is tougher on women,” September 2020. bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/beyond-bls/covid-19-recession-is-tougher-on-women.htm

3 Brookings, “Why has Covid-19 been especially harmful for working women?,” October 2020.  brookings.edu/essay/why-has-covid-19-been-especially-harmful-for-working-women/

4 Brookings, “Unemployment insurance is failing workers during Covid-19. Here’s how to strengthen it,” April 2020. brookings.edu/research/unemployment-insurance-is-failing-workers-during-covid-19-heres-how-to-strengthen-it/

5 Pew, “Single mothers hit hard by job losses,” May 2020. pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/05/26/single-mothers-hit-hard-by-job-losses

6 Daniel L. Carlson, Richard Petts and Joanna R. Pepin, SocArXiv, “Changes in parents’ domestic labor during the COVID-19 pandemic,” May 2020. osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/jy8fn

7 Amanda Taub, New York Times, “Pandemic will ‘take our women 10 years back’ in the workplace,” September 2020. nytimes.com/2020/09/26/world/covid-women-childcare-equality.html

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