Una Osili: Pandemic has walloped Black female labor participation

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Una OsiliLast month, we celebrated Black History Month—the annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time set aside to recognize their central role in U.S. and world history.

But history does not just refer to the past; history is also being made in the present.

This year, Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman and the first African American and Asian American vice president. The incredible community organizing work of Stacey Abrams and many other Black women played a pivotal role in Harris’ success.

During this time, we recognize the breakthrough work and contributions of Black women and women of color. We celebrate these achievements, but at the same time, there are troubling signs ahead. In the past year, COVID-19 and its economic fallout now threaten women’s progress—especially women of color—over the decades.

Before the pandemic, women’s visibility as leaders and decision-makers in society had risen steadily. Economist and Harvard professor Claudia Goldin dubbed this the “quiet revolution.” Women’s labor-force participation, control of wealth and income grew, along with their increased power and influence over decisions. New social movements—like the #MeToo Movement and #TimesUp—were changing our public debates and reshaping institutions.

But the global pandemic has upended this progress and exposed the harsh impact of gender inequality.

Recent data shows a sizable drop in female labor-force participation across regions. Industries and sectors with high shares of female employment, such as retail and hospitality, have been hardest hit.

Female labor-force participation—the measure of individuals either working or looking for work—is now at 55.7%, its lowest level since 1988.

Statistics also show that women are on the front lines of this crisis at work and home. They compose a majority of the essential workforce and have shouldered the bulk of care-giving responsibilities for children and older relatives.

Looking more deeply, Black women appear to have faced even steeper declines in labor-force participation rates. Black female participation rates dropped 6.4 percentage points, while Black male participation rates fell 4 percentage points. This is a much larger decline for Black women than during the Great Recession.

But women are not just losing jobs, particularly in the hospitality and leisure sectors; they are dropping out of the workforce.

Closures at schools and day-care centers have left a disproportionate burden for women as they navigate care giving and work demands.

Labor-force participation rates for several demographics, including women with young children, have been the hardest hit.

As we look ahead, women of color and those without a bachelor’s degree might face more hurdles to regain an economic foothold.

We should be concerned about how and when Black women will return to their pre-pandemic employment levels. Evidence from the Great Recession tells us that declines in participation rates, particularly for vulnerable demographic groups, can take years to rebound fully.

Policymakers must improve child care infrastructure and implement family-friendly policies to ensure an economic recovery that promotes gender and racial equity.

The vice president has stated that, while she might be the first woman in this office, she will not be the last.

This is the moment to finish the “quiet revolution” and make sure this recovery is inclusive of women of color.•


Osili is professor of economics and associate dean for research and international programs at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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