Why This Economic Crisis Differs From the Last One for Women

In our paper, we look at how the current downturn is different from a regular recession.

We know that regular recessions have an uneven impact on women and men, but in the opposite direction. In all major recessions, including the financial recession 10 years ago, many more men lose their jobs. This has to do with two things: Usually the most affected sectors are things like construction and manufacturing, which are male-dominated. And the second thing is this notion of “insurance in the family,” that some married women decide to actually work more during a recession to make up for the job loss of the husband.

But in this downturn, already you can see that it’s quite different. The sectors that are going to be most affected — for example, the restaurants, which are all closed, or the travel sector — have fairly high female employment. More women will lose jobs.

But the much bigger thing for most people who live with children is the extra child care needs — everybody with young kids has to provide all of the child care all of a sudden. And we argue that the vast majority of this extra work will fall on women, therefore making it difficult for them to work as usual.

Big crises have the potential to bring about cultural change. World War II was a bit like that because, for the first time, many married women with children joined the labor force, and there’s a lot of research showing this had a really persistent impact on social norms.

There’s some potential for that here from two quite different perspectives. One is from the perspective of the employers. Many businesses are adopting work-from-home policies, and that’s going to stick. These businesses are going to invest in the technology, they’re going to learn how to do this, they’re going to see that there’s some advantage to this. And we expect that this added flexibility is going to stay — not completely — but to a large extent after the crisis. It’s really a benefit to everybody, to all families, but given that right now mothers bear the burden of child care, in a relative sense, they’re going to benefit from that.

The other side of this is the cultural norms side. Whenever you look at the division of labor in the household, it’s really not just that whoever earns more works more. A lot has to do with cultural expectations. For example, in couples where the wives may have a higher income than the husbands, they often still do the majority of the child care.

So even though on average women will do most of this additional child care right now, for many couples it’s going to be the other way around, probably for the first time. If the wife works in medicine, for example, or in some other essential sector where she can’t work from home, then just by necessity the father will be the main provider of child care.

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