The Gender Penalties of the Pandemic: The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women’s labor market outcomes

August 24, 2021

The multiple and intersecting health, social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated existing gender gaps and deepened the vulnerability of women and girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). In previous #GraphForThought posts I have discussed how women have been disproportionately affected, for example, through an increase in domestic and gender-based violence and through a slower recovery of labor market outcomes. This post revisits the question of how COVID-19 has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities in the labor market, but uses additional data on household composition to explore this issue in greater depth.

While LAC has made moderate improvements in labor market outcomes in recent decades, COVID-19 risks much of this progress. Indeed, studies estimate that the pandemic could set back female labor force participation in LAC by approximately ten years. One reason is that women have a higher labor force participation rate than men in many of the sectors that have been most negatively impacted by the crisis, such as commerce, education, domestic work, and tourism. Another reason is the way that traditional gender norms have unfairly burdened women with an even greater share of unpaid domestic work and caregiving activities during this time (compounded, for example, by new demands such as remote home-schooling of children, caregiving responsibilities during remote working hours, and/or reduced access to previously relied upon support services such as family members, domestic workers, schools, or care facilities). It is taking a toll on not only women’s (and particularly mothers’) time but also their broader well-being. For example, a study that analyzes the effects of the pandemic on teleworking circumstances in Mexico shows a disproportionate impact on women’s emotional well-being, the chronic exhaustion of mothers who telework, and the overload in household chores and caregiving activities, among others.

Using data from national household surveys from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay, this #GraphForThought delves into the impact of the pandemic on the recovery of labor force participation rates and unemployment rates, considering how this manifests differently by household composition. In particular, it looks at the gender of the household head and the presence of young children (specifically, the presence of at least one child under the age of six). These additional variables present a more nuanced understanding how COVID-19 has fostered gender and parental differentiated impacts within the labor market. While there are some differences across countries, an interesting divergence seems to emerge between mothers of young children who are heads of household (single-parent household) and those who are not heads of household (multi-parent households). In general, we are seeing that single-mothers are seeing faster labor market recovery rates than mothers in multi-parent households. Note that in Latin America, 39% of households are headed by a woman and 26% are single-parent households where the head is female (Guitierrez, Martin and Ñopo, 2020).

The following graphs show how this has played out in the context of labor force participation (first graph) and unemployment (second graph). Both graphs show the trajectory of the indicator taking the first quarter of 2020 as a baseline; that is, comparing with the moment before the pandemic. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, we see that all groups in the analysis saw worsening labor market outcomes. However, in terms of labor force participation rates, we see that mothers in multi-parent households (darkest red line) faced the highest drop labor force participation rates and remained the furthest behind pre-pandemic levels compared to other groups at the end of the analysis period. Conversely, mothers in single-parent households (lightest red line) saw far lower drops and recovered to above pre-pandemic levels. In terms of unemployment, we see that while women in single-parent households saw greater increases in their overall level of unemployment than women in multi-parent households, they again recovered faster to pre-pandemic levels.

Why might this divergence be happening? While there are likely many reasons for this, one key factor could be that women in single-parent households do not have the option of not working. They may be the only income generators in their households, which they supplement with remittances, aid from other households (for example, divorce pensions) and to a lesser extent, cash transfers. That is, the household and children depend on their labor income to survive, which may explain why these women do not withdraw from the labor market but persist in their search for employment even in the context of strict confinements and accelerated destruction of available jobs. The rise in unemployment is thus, in a way, the other side of the coin. For women living in other types of households (for example, two-parent), the impact of the crisis is not seen so much in unemployment, but rather in the decline in labor force participation. One reason may be because women in two-parent homes have had to take over caregiving duties almost full time. If, in addition, their income was "complementary" (that is, the household had another relevant labor income), and they belonged to labor sectors that have been paralyzed (e.g., tourism, commerce, etc.), the decrease in labor participation it is a predictable result. Therefore, there is an almost mirror-like behavior, where if unemployment does not increase, labor participation will probably decrease.

This type of disproportionate impact of the crisis on women demands that policy responses take a gender-sensitive approach that considers the complexities and nuances of the current challenge we are facing. When analyzing the policy responses implemented in LAC, according to the Global Tracker of Gender Responses to COVID-19 of UNDP and UN Women, we see that roughly half of the region’s total registered 662 measures to address the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are gender sensitive. However, the vast majority of the measures captured by the GRG Tracker in relation to women's economic security focus on social protection. Gender-sensitive interventions in terms of labor markets and support for other relevant sectors of the economy such as unpaid care and domestic work have been implemented to a far a lesser extent. It is essential that policy responses integrate these different dimensions. For example, it is important to think about investment policies in care infrastructure that allow women to not only reenter but thrive in the labor market. At the same time, complementary policy actions, such as reopening schools is imperative to support the millions of families who have been (and remain) adversely affected by prolonged school closings. Finally, policy action should also focus on shifting social norms towards a more equal distribution of care activities within the household.