A so-called “she-cession” is sweeping the nation, with more women are leaving the workforce than ever before.
“You can only put off your own work so much. It just became exhausting,” said Wendy Mccullough, a Chicago mother of two.
Mccullough had been working in management consulting for 20 years. She had taken time off briefly for maternity leaves in the past, but in 2020, she actually left her job, for the first time ever.
“We knew we needed to make a change. Since I had already scaled back my career a couple times, financially it made sense for me to take a break,” said Mccullough.
Mccullough said it became too much to handle managing her job and her children’s remote learning. Her husband also works full time.
“About three months in, we hit our breaking point,” she said. “The kids were not doing well. I think the biggest factor for my decision was my 3-year-old daughter was developing anxiety. She was regressing in a lot of her skills.”
The burden of childcare is often falling on working moms like Mccullough. She had a choice to leave her job in order to manage responsibilities at home. Many women do not.
Economists say the industries hardest hit during the pandemic are those that predominantly employ women.
The latest numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are 2.4 million fewer women in the labor force compared to a year ago. The number is significantly lower, 1.8 million, for men.
The numbers are also disproportionately affecting women of color.
“Mostly in low wage service sectors, think leisure, hospitality, entertainment, hotels,” said Matt Notowidego, a professor of economics at the Booth School of Business. “When we talk about a 'she-cession,' it’s not just about unemployment. It’s about changes in labor force participation."
The concern is the longer someone spends out of the labor market, the harder it is to go back. Professor Notowidego notes there is a lack of support systems in place for working women.
“Childcare plays a big role in why women are not participating in the labor market as much as men, and why the US looks so different than other countries. I think the lack of high quality, affordable childcare, the fact that the government is not subsidizing childcare, providing childcare, is a major factor,” he said.
Cherita Ellens is the president and CEO of Women Employed, an advocacy group that pursues equity for women in the workforce. She says this mass exodus could have potential, devastating effects on the hard-fought gains women have made to this point.
“This impact is going to be wide and the tail is going to be long,” said Ellens.
“The industries that have been decimated the most, hospitality and service industries, many of those jobs aren’t coming back,” she said. “These women now have to re-skill themselves to even find new employment. So, that entire time they’re not earning wages. That entire time they’re not putting away savings for retirement.”
Childcare is an industry disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The industry was struggling even before 2020.
“Childcare has been severely underfunded, leaving childcare providers with razor thin budget margins. They’ve been forced to close. Childcare workers have low pay. Many families are without access to affordable and quality childcare,” said Ellens.
Kimberlee Burt Hendricks owns A Child’s Space Early Learning Center in the South Loop. She feels fortunate her business survived when so many did not. The center was closed for nearly six months.
“We’re spending, I would say, 50% more, if not more, on just cleaning supplies alone. It’s been significant,” said Hendricks.
With new social distancing requirements, some families can no longer afford the higher cost of childcare. At least 60% of her clients are not coming back.
“You have to look at the bigger picture of the higher operational costs overall. Lower revenues because of lower number of students typically attending. Those things do still have an impact on your bottom line,” said Hendricks.
Hendricks is part of a network of women who participate in the Women’s Business Development Center. The WBDC provides resources and training for women business owners.
Managing director Blanca Berthier has seen an increase in requests for support.
“This moment is critical,” said Berthier. “We do need to pour some more resources to keep supporting women. Otherwise those strides we have achieved could be in danger.”
Berthier says despite the negative impact the past year has had on women, she’s also seen their resiliency and an increase in the number of women eager to start their own businesses.
The pandemic has shone a light on the need for this type of support, in more ways than one.
“What this entire pandemic has unearthed is dramatic inequalities in access to care, resources, health, and economic scenarios,” said Hendricks.
As for Wendy Mccullough, she says she does plan to return to work, someday.
“I really value working. [It’s] part of my identity,” she said. “I’m going to go back as soon as it stabilizes.”
Mccullough and others hope shedding a light on the “she-cession” accelerates the re-hiring of women and especially rehiring them in the same seniority. She and others hope to someday see a world where taking leave – men or women - is acceptable.
“I think we still have a ways to go so that motherhood doesn’t take you out of the workforce or make life so exhausting as you’re powering through it.”