Gender and Job Loss in the COVID Economy

Robert D. Atkinson July 8, 2020
July 8, 2020

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The COVID-induced shutdowns and cutbacks that spread through the U.S. economy this spring left 10 percent fewer workers employed in June 2020 than in June 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The gender composition of these losses was fairly balanced for workers over the age of 20: Men saw an employment decline of 8.8 percent, while the rate was somewhat higher for women (9.6 percent). At first glance this is surprising, since the most severe job losses were in occupations that employ higher shares of women, especially personal care and service occupations (which lost half their workers and employ 240 percent more women than men) and food preparation and serving-related occupations (which lost one-third of their workers and employ 24 percent more women than men). 

But despite massive job losses for the overall economy, a number of occupations actually expanded employment over the last year. And in many of these, women comprise a higher share of total workers. This includes health-care support occupations, which grew 14 percent and employ 5 times as many women as men, and community and social service occupations, which expanded by 10 percent and employ 120 percent more women.

However, within broad occupational classes there were significant gender differences in the job-loss figures. Women were 14 percent more likely to be laid off in production operations (where they suffered a 27 percent drop in employment versus a 15 percent drop for men) and 8 percent more in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations (where their ranks fell by 24 percent versus 16 percent for men). At first glance, this may suggest that women are more vulnerable to job loss in blue collar occupations. But this does not appear to be a pattern. Women actually increased their employment by 21 percent in construction and extraction occupations (albeit from a very low base) while 12 percent of men lost their jobs, and they experience no change in protective services occupations (e.g., security guards), while there were 12 percent fewer men employed year-over-year.  

Interestingly, there was no correlation between occupational wage levels and the rate of job loss by gender. Even though there is a negative correlation (-0.22) between the share of women in an occupation and the occupation’s average wage levels, women were no more likely to be laid off compared to men in higher- or lower-wage occupations. For example, fewer women than men were laid off in some above-average wage occupations, such as management; architecture and engineering; arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; and life physical and social science occupations.

The COVID-generated economic crisis is one of the worst in American history, but thankfully, it does not appear to have exacerbated existing gender challenges in the overall U.S. labor market. If the current wave of technology, including artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, actually starts to impact productivity growth—something we have yet to see—then it will be important to assess whether these changes have gender impacts. However, as ITIF has estimated, the answer will likely be no; emerging technology is likely to have similar effects on occupational change for both genders.