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One year on, COVID-19 has driven women out of the labor force

covid-19 and women
Northwestern experts explain the ways women have struggled during the pandemic.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Northwestern economists and social scientists share several points of view on how women in the labor force have seen a disproportionate economic impact from COVID-19.


Leigh Thompson is professor in the Kellogg School of Management.

“We’re in the middle of a ‘she-cession’ where women are three times more likely than men not to work during the pandemic due to childcare constraints. While men increased childcare and homeschooling responsibilities to 4.7 hours per day, women increased to 6.1 hours per day. And from February to May of 2020, 11.5 million women were laid off, versus 9 million men.”

Long path to recovery

Paola Sapienza is the Donald C. Clark/HSBC Chair in Consumer Finance at Kellogg.

“The path to recovery for women in the labor force will be long. The evidence shows that the pandemic put abundant burden on both parents but most of the responsibility still fell on women. The Center for American Progress reports that even a 5% decline in maternal labor force participation would undo the past 25 years of progress. This progress has been slow over time and a setback could have long-term consequences. However, the answer to many of this is understanding the government’s response and implemented policies to address the challenges that women are experiencing.”

Longer days

Ellen Taaffe is clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of Women's Leadership Programming at Kellogg.

“The pandemic made visible the disproportionate amount of emotional and physical labor that women hold. For women, the days have grown longer, blurring the boundaries between work and home. I expect a rise in empathetic inclusive leadership in business, a whole new way of working tied to outcomes instead of in-office face time, and renegotiations in homes and communities. As companies continue to focus on diversity and inclusion, the visibility that COVID-19 created could be the silver lining catalyst we need to reset how we work.”

Less equal

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“Women are coming out of this crisis less equal than men. Many women have left the labor market entirely, and a large share of the women who were unemployed or reduced hours during crisis will experience lower earnings and worsened career opportunities in the years to come. One year on, while unemployment has come down, women’s participation in the workforce hit a 33-year low in January 2021.”

Family improv

Christine Percheski is associate professor of sociology at the Weinberg College and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

“In the U.S., where we have weak worker protections and few provisions for paid time off and family leave, families had to improvise private solutions to caregiving challenges. More women than men left the labor force to care for children, supervise remote schooling and provide eldercare. Progress toward gender equity in employment and pay could easily be set back by decades without strong corrective action by employers and government.”

Faculty disadvantaged

Karen Alter is Lady Board of Managers of the Colombian Exposition Professor of Political Science and Law and co-chair of the Organization of Women Faculty.

“Even before the pandemic, female faculty were disadvantaged in nearly all metrics university leaders use to assess faculty quality and impact. Numerous studies show that grants to female faculty are lower, citations and teaching evaluations are lower, and salaries are lower. These studies, which control for so many factors, bolster the lived experience of female faculty. It is hard not to conclude that gender bias is at play. Even prize-winning work by female faculty, and co-authored papers, garner less recognition than the same prize-winning and co-authorship of male colleagues. This reality is disheartening, and it is a net loss for society. The number of women pursuing Ph.D.s has reached parity in many disciplines, and studies find that female faculty begin with grants and career awards. Yet across the arc of a female faculty member’s career, women tend to publish less than men, and far fewer patents are awarded to women.”

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