American women reached a milestone in December, holding just over 50% of the nation's payroll jobs. "It’s a milestone because it’s really heralding the future and not just telling us where we are today," a professor said when the figures were released in January, the Washington Post reported. Just a few months later, it's a different story. The workforce gains achieved over the past decade have been wiped out by the pandemic shutdown, per the Post. The unemployment rate for women was 16.2% in April, almost 3 percentage points above the rate for men. Women held the vast majority of jobs in education and health services before the pandemic hit, but they took 83% of the job losses in those fields. Women had fewer than half of the retail jobs, but 61% of the retail jobs cut were held by women. "How are we supposed to ever come back?" said an official at the National Women’s Law Center.
An analysis found this to be the first time the unemployment rate for women has been in double digits since 1948, per the New York Times. And some fields dominated by women, such as hospitality and leisure, could be slow to bounce back, experts said. Low-wage workers, who are predominately women, could have the most trouble being rehired. Women fill about 58% of the jobs in the public sector, and state and local governments will have to cut jobs. Even women who have a job to return to could run into complications. "If summer camps don’t open up, if schools don’t open in the fall, who goes back to work?" a professor said. Women and families need greater economic protection, one advocate said, and there's reason to hope for that in the flurry of legislation and aid that's passed Congress during the pandemic. "Just a couple months ago, the things that we all said were impossible, we’re now doing," she said, "like basic income and paid sick leave." (Read more unemployment stories.)