Original illustration by Ivette Salom

By Sira Basse, age 15

The fight for gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing battle in the United States, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the struggle more dire. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, 5.5 million women around the country lost their jobs, 1 million more than men. In February 2021, the labor participation rate for women was 55.8%, its lowest level since 1987.

Occupations in the service, leisure and hospitality industry, as well as education and healthcare services, were hit particularly hard with layoffs. Generally, women make up the majority of staff in these fields. According to the New York Times, Black, Asian and Latina women accounted for 100% of women laid off in December 2020. Half of all women in the United States have low-paying jobs, and of that half, most of the women are either Black or Latina. According to Penn Today, the pandemic has also caused many women to miss career-advancing promotions that could possibly lead to improved economic standing.

Although the wage gap has improved, things are still a long way from equal. As of 2018, for every dollar earned by a man, a white woman makes 79 cents, Asian women make 90 cents, while Black, American Indian and Latina women make less than 62 cents. Ximena Leyte Escalante, marketing and engagement coordinator at Women Employed, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Chicago, said in an interview with IndyKids, “For some women, pay disparities can add up to more than a million dollars over a 40-year career.” 

A 2020 Gallup poll found that women in heterosexual relationships are five times more likely to be responsible for the majority of housework, and a recent report published by SpringerLink found that 45% of women were responsible for all child care compared with 14% of men. A lack of child care is one of the leading reasons women have been forced to leave their jobs since the start of the pandemic. At the start of the school year in September 2020, more than 860,000 women dropped out of the labor force as a result of school and daycare closures. President Biden promised to reopen schools within his first 100 days in office. However, there have been many obstacles delaying this process. Teacher unions, for instance, have been pushing to have a vaccination requirement before fully reopening schools.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which was passed in March, focuses more on working women as part of families. The bill mostly targets low-income families and aims to help children within impoverished communities. Specifically the bill includes $3,000 in tax credits for each child, a $40 billion investment in child care assistance and an extension of unemployment benefits. The amount of money provided for families is intended to jump to 80% more than before. It is also important to note that even parents with little to no income still qualify.

However, Escalante criticized the bill by stating that “The American Rescue Plan does not meet the magnitude of the enduring need for paid leave in the United States.” She goes on to explain that women are still forced to choose between the health of themselves and their loved ones or keeping their jobs. The majority of these women are Black or Latina. Escalante explains that in order to start tackling this issue, there needs to be created “a robust care infrastructure and strong workplace protections that support families’ need for caregiving.”

The National Women’s Law Center reported that while the March jobs report announced a surprising surge in employment, only one-third of those went to women, and it will take up to 15 months to get women back to pre-pandemic employment rates—a troubling projection considering an employment gap of just one year leads to a 39% decrease in annual earnings, according to the Center for American Progress.