COVID-19 recession hit women especially hard. We need bold policies to promote equality.

C. Nicole Mason, Opinion contributor
·5 mins read

Things have changed. While I attended a small family wedding in Las Vegas, a relative confided to me that she had been laid off. She had worked for a company, a major resort and casino, for 20 years in one of their many restaurants.

Now, seemingly without notice, she was unemployed and raising a son. She also is the primary wage earner in her family. In her voice, I could sense a mixture of disbelief, fear and uncertainty about their future and when she might return to work.

This is the new reality for many working women across America.

Women have been disproportionately hurt by job losses during the pandemic. From February to May, 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared with 9 million men, triggering a “shecession” – an economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men.

The majority of job losses have been concentrated in sectors dominated by women: leisure and hospitality, education, health care and service. These jobs tend to be lower paying and have less flexibility or benefits, exacerbating many inequalities in the workforce.

Worse, this crisis places a heavy burden on women’s shoulders in caring for families. With schools and day cares closed, women are responsible for most of the caretaking responsibilities in families. Women are in an impossible situation: having to choose between earning a living and taking care of their children.

The situation is particularly acute for Black and Latina women, close to a third of whom are employed in the service sector. Many of these women do not have the option to work remotely or to refuse work for health reasons. To get paid, they must show up.

Pandemic exposes inequities

The pandemic and our government’s failed response to it has brought many things into focus. Chief among them is the fact that many of our systems – including economic and health care – have never worked for women and families. In fact, over the years, these broken systems have only deepened health, economic, social inequalities and disparities for women and people of color.

One result of these failed systems is that women have always been more likely to be impoverished compared with men. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 38.1 million people living in poverty in 2018, 56% – or 21.4 million – were women.

Women also earn less, have smaller savings and are more likely to leave the workforce or reduce work hours to take care of their children or sick family members compared with men. These inequities are particularly pernicious for women of color.

Another factor shaping women’s economic well-being is their lack of access to high-quality, affordable health care. Compared with other high-income countries, women in the United States spend $2,000 or more on out-of-pocket medical expenses for themselves or family members, are more likely to skip or delay needed medical care because of costs, and are less likely to rate their quality of care as excellent or very good.

A direct correlation exists between these findings and high maternal death rates among Black women and even the disproportionately high rates of COVID-19-related deaths among racial and ethnic minorities.

Women's economic gains erased

At the first of the year, we celebrated women’s economic gains, when they made up a little more than 50% of the workforce. The pandemic has all but wiped out those gains and made it more difficult for women to reenter the workforce and sustain employment. Many of the jobs lost will not come back. Many women will have to learn new skills or enter a new profession, where starting wages might be lower.

To dig out of the economic crisis and to ensure an even recovery, we will have to go big – instituting bold public policies at the state and federal levels that accelerate closing the pay gap, provide economic supports to women who are unable to reenter the workforce, and advance legislation that expands paid and family medical leave.

Child care also will be key. Without child care, women will not be able to reenter the workforce to recoup job losses. If we don’t fix the failing child care system, women will continue to lose ground in terms of career advancement, mobility and earnings. We should look to child care models in countries like Sweden and treat child care as a public good. It should be subsidized and widely available to families regardless of income or the age of the child. Doing so will allow women to not only reenter the workforce but also to be competitive and sustain employment.

In short, we need a new deal, one that centers on working women and their families. The next administration should pursue policies that build equitable institutions and systems, that get people back to work and that ensure economic prosperity for all. This is our opportunity to make things right; let’s not squander it.

C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: We must be bold to confront economic inequality for women