The NCSL Blog

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By Tatiana Follett

The COVID-19 pandemic-caused recession has been deemed the largest since World War II, according to the World Bank. However, unlike previous economic downturns, the current recession has disproportionately affected women.

A recent report by the National Women’s Law Center reports that women accounted for all 140,000 jobs lost in December. In all, women lost 156,000 jobs in December, while men gained 16,000 jobs. There were almost 2.1 million fewer women in the labor force at the end of 2020 than before the pandemic began, with women accounting for 55% of overall job losses.

women unemployment pandemic recession

In general, women are losing jobs at a greater rate and gaining jobs at a slower rate than men with Black and Latina women experiencing especially severe job losses. Black and Latina women’s unemployment rates are 1.7 times higher than the pre-pandemic unemployment rate for each.

Women with disabilities saw a 4% increase in unemployment rates during the pandemic. Finally, 1 in 6 women are involuntarily working part-time, meaning they would rather work more hours. This rate is higher for Black, Latina and Asian women. The chart above, developed by the National Women’s Law Center, presents the unemployment rates for women and minority women compared to white men for December 2020.  

These statistics point to a crisis within a crisis: the unequal effects of the pandemic threaten to push back women’s progress in wage equality and labor participation up to 10 years.

Furthermore, the increased burden on minority, disabled and immigrant women highlights the pervasiveness of existing structures which can inhibit female advancement and equality. Many are also remarking on how the pandemic has exposed the fragility of women’s progress to date.  

While a multitude of policy approaches exist to support women in the workplace, one way to increase female participation in underrepresented fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), is through state workforce development initiatives. 

A New Jersey bill, SB 973, enacted in 2020, establishes a mentoring and apprenticeship program for women, minorities and persons with disabilities. Virginia HB 30 increases access to fast-growing technology careers by appropriating $3.6 million over two years towards acquiring vocational-technical equipment for high-growth sectors.

State legislatures also passed multiple bills in previous years related to creating opportunities for women, minorities and those with disabilities in the workplace.

  • In 2019, Alaska passed HB 49, which creates a working partnership between the Commissioner of Corrections and the Department of Labor to provide job training and job search support for recently incarcerated individuals.
  • Illinois HB 2896 (2019) creates a state task force to increase the diversity of the healthcare workforce.
  • In 2016, California passed AB 2288, which focuses on apprenticeship programs in the construction industry. The bill also includes a plan to increase recruitment and retention of women in the industry.
  • Illinois also passed S 2087 (2019), which creates a Customized Employment Pilot Program to help individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities seek and obtain employment.

For more information on recent state workforce development initiatives, see NCSL’s 2020 and 2019 Workforce Development Enactments pages and NCSL’s Disability Employment Legislation database.   

Although the future of the labor force is uncertain, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of programs which support historically underrepresented groups such as women, mothers, people of color and those with disabilities in the workplace. Fortunately, policymakers are finding innovative solutions to further support these groups in the workplace. 

Tatiana Follett is an intern in the Employment, Labor and Retirement Program. Iris Hentze is a policy specialist in the Employment, Labor and Retirement Program. 

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.