A recent article written by Kweilin Ellingrud for the McKinsey & Company COVID Response Center provides valuable insight into some long-term effects for women who left the workforce during the pandemic and some influences of culture and diversity on the women who left. For this case study, Ellingrud interviewed two Latina mothers who left the workforce. Farida Mercedes was a human resources executive for seventeen years at a global company and Dr. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto was a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin when they left their jobs to care for their children during the pandemic.

Ellingrud notes that many Black and brown mothers did not have the option of leaving the workforce during the pandemic because they are the primary or sole breadwinners of their families. Prior to the pandemic women were the primary or sole breadwinners in 68 percent of Black families and 41 percent of Latino families. Nonetheless, Black and brown women had the highest unemployment rate as of January 2021.

The role of culture in the decisions of Mercedes and Soto to leave the workforce to care for children during the pandemic is clear. Mercedes explained that in her culture, “Women have never really had the support that men have had in the workforce.” She goes on to explain that in her marriage, she is always the one to take care of the children and that it was just assumed that if someone needed to stay home with the children during the pandemic, it would be her. Soto notes, “In Latin American culture, there are stricter kinds of gender norms. Combine the fact that Latinas are the ones who have been hardest hit by the shecession with the fact that you have these gender norms, and it’s really a recipe for disaster for women and women of color.” 

This situation has many implications for women of color:

  • Women who cut back their paid-work hours to accommodate family responsibility risk losing wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement.
  • The women who are eventually able to go back to work are not going to be able to advance to the degree they would have before because of the gap in their employment.
  • Women who work in service industries as low-wage workers may not be able to regain employment at all. A lot of their jobs were planned for automation before the pandemic, and the pandemic accelerated that timeline.
  • In addition to lost paychecks, lost contributions to retirement savings and Social Security will result in long-term hardship. 

Ellingrud quotes Soto, co-author of the report “America’s Recovery from the 2020 ‘Shecession’: Building a Female Future of Childcare and Work,” as saying that to get women, and especially women of color, back to work, we need:

  • A robust reskilling and retooling program to enable lower socioeconomic women to find stable employment
  • Fixes to our broken childcare system
  • Maternity leave

The pandemic has laid bare the disparities that women of color face and highlighted many of our broken systems. The shecession is not going to magically disappear as the country comes out of the pandemic. We need to make investments in people and systems—such as childcare—now.

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash