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Why The Pandemic Is Forcing So Many Women To Leave Their Jobs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've talked a lot on this program about how the coronavirus pandemic doesn't discriminate. But it's also a fact that the fallout from the virus and the efforts to control it - shutting down businesses, closing schools, working from home - have landed harder on some people than others. So right now, we want to focus on one group that's taken a particularly hard hit. We are talking about women.

American women have borne the brunt of job losses since the pandemic began and are currently experiencing a slower economic recovery than their male counterparts in the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September alone, with only about half of those jobs returning in October. And even with those gains, there are still 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce than there were at the start of 2020.

So we wanted to dig a bit deeper into why this is - why is the pandemic forcing so many women to leave their jobs? - and what these losses look like across the country. So we've called upon three women, each with a unique perspective on all of this. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been reporting on the pandemic's impact on women.

Andrea, welcome.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist at the RAND Corporation and focuses on equality.

Kathryn Anne Edwards, welcome to you.

KATHRYN ANNE EDWARDS: Howdy. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Farida Mercedes gave up her corporate job recently to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Farida Mercedes, welcome to you as well.

FARIDA MERCEDES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Kathryn Anne Edwards, I'm just going to start with you. We know by now that the economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic has hit women harder than men. But why is that?

EDWARDS: There's three reasons. The first is job loss. When the pandemic started, and we had severe job loss in April and May, it was concentrated in occupations and industries that women were more employed in, like personal care and service, leisure and hospitality. And then the - kind of the second hit was that women who remained employed were also disproportionately represented in occupations that were essential and high-risk, like nursing and health care.

But then really, now that we enter the fall, the reason for the season is child care. We have - child care centers are closed, schools are in remote and hybrid learning. If they're in person now, they're at risk for going back to remote in this new surge. And that is putting a huge strain on women who have to do it all, whose - you know, whose house is now a daycare, is now a school and is now their office.

MARTIN: So, Farida Mercedes, is this sounding familiar to you? You are one of the folks who made the decision to leave your job. You weren't laid off. Can you just talk a little bit about - and I recognize it's personal, so I do want to thank you for being willing to share those things with us. You know, what made - what was the tipping point for you?

MERCEDES: No, absolutely. I made the decision to leave my 17-year career at L'Oreal. I was assistant vice president of HR. And when it - we were getting closer to coming back to school in September, at the end of August, I made a very difficult decision to leave my role. I just could not imagine what I had done in the spring of being a stay-at-home mom and also working full-time.

I had to support them in their classes. And I was trying my best to navigate through, OK, I will do math homework between these two meetings. And I wasn't giving the energy that I wanted to to my job, and I was very fearful that I wasn't showing up the way that I wanted to. I was very driven and wanted so many things to continue in my career. But I also wanted to continue to support my children.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, if - was there a day that just brought it - that crystallized this for you? Do you remember, if you don't mind...

MERCEDES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Sharing it? Like, what was that...

MERCEDES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Like? Yeah.

MERCEDES: Yeah, absolutely. I had a really long day. Unfortunately, you know, being in human resources, I had some very difficult decision - conversations with employees. And unfortunately, because the business wasn't doing as well, we had to lay some people off. It was a really difficult day.

I went downstairs. My mom was there, made she made a joke about something and trying to make light of something that was happening in the house. And I laughed. And my 7-year-old son looked at me, and he said, wow, mom. You're laughing. I haven't seen you happy in such a long time. And that hit me like a ton of bricks. And I realized I'm not showing up for them. The person that they're seeing is not the - is not their mom.

And that right there - that day, I said, I need to do something. And that's when I finally made the decision that I had to leave my job. And it - I cried for weeks until from that day - until the day that I was able to speak it, I cried for weeks because it was incredibly hard. It was a part of my identity - working and having a career and going up the ladder and the next level and position and title was so important to me, and now I had to put it on pause to be with my family.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, thank you for sharing. But also, that's a cool job. I mean, it's not like that's - frankly, it just seems like that was a job that wasn't just about the money. It's also something that you really enjoyed.

MERCEDES: Yes.

MARTIN: And I can imagine - if you don't mind my noticing, I can imagine that perhaps there were not as many Latinas, people of your background, at the level that you were at, so you also probably felt the pressure of being a role model, if I may...

MERCEDES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Say.

MERCEDES: Yes.

MARTIN: So all of that together is hard.

Andrea, you've been reporting on this as well. Talk a little bit more about what your reporting indicates. Is what Farida expressed something that you're hearing a lot?

HSU: Absolutely. I've been hearing it over and over again. And, you know, for a lot of the mothers I spoke to, it was really the news this summer that their kid's school was not going to open as usual that drove them to, you know, take a leave of absence or quit their jobs, as Farida has done.

And, you know, for some of these mothers - like, I spoke to Jessica Ments (ph) in Los Angeles. She was in marketing. She had this really great career. She had an MBA. At the beginning, she said, you know, maybe it'll be two or three weeks. She went to the craft store. She bought a bunch of art supplies.

But then it sort of came crashing down on her when she realized, like, no, this is not two, three weeks. And like Farida, she just was so torn in so many different directions that she ended up quitting her job. And she worries about clawing - you know, she said, I worry about clawing my way back after this. But she needed to be there for her kids.

MARTIN: Kathryn Anne, can I ask you this, though? Is there any indication in the data about - I know that you were saying that, you know, a lot of women because their industries, their work was the work that was hard hit. But a lot of men work in these fields as well. Is there anything in the data that suggests that more women than men are taking - are leaving the workforce because they have to or because they just feel they - because they feel they have to or because they - actually economic - for economic reasons have to? Does that make sense?

EDWARDS: Yeah. And, you know, I'll say a couple things. Men and women in a partnership, in a household, specialize. You know, even when they split things, they don't split them 50/50 - like, I do the first half of the dishes, and then I stop, and I get my husband, and I say, all right, now it's your turn. You know, we just - you tend to specialize in certain tasks.

And then in your jobs, you know, it tends to be that one person has the less flexible job and one person has the more flexible job, and one person has the higher-paying job, and one person has the lower-paying job. And it happens for so many reasons that women end up in the more flexible, sometimes lower-paying positions. And so when something like this happens, they're - they have the room to maneuver where the male worker might not.

And I think this is what really bothers me about this time period, is that we put so much pressure on women in their marriage, right? I read a Time magazine article last year about how women can make their husbands do more, right? We're going into people's households, and we're looking in and saying, does he do enough? You know, you're having a hard time at work. You know, does he do the dishes? Does he do the laundry?

And to me, as a labor economist and someone who looks a lot at public policy, I read that as a public policy failure. We have this huge burden of caregiving that you have when you're a parent. And the federal response to that has been, women, try to do more. And we have never made an investment in working women in this country. We don't have child care that's subsidized, affordable, free and accessible in the U.S. We don't have universal preschool. We don't have longer school days, and we don't have universal family leave.

There's only so much that we can put on women to say, well, change your identity, work more, get more education. But also make your husbands do more, and make your marriage look different. I mean, it's time for public policy to step in. It was time 40 years ago. And now that we're at the precipice of a crisis, and so much is resting on what women do in the next four years, it's time to give them the support they should have had ages ago.

MARTIN: I know we only just scratched the surface with this conversation. I do hope we'll talk again soon. So thank you so much.

That was Kathryn Anne Edwards, a labor economist with the RAND Corporation. We also heard from Farida Mercedes, who recently left her corporate job to become a stay-at-home mom, and from NPR's Andrea Hsu.

Thank you all so much. Hang in there.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

MERCEDES: Take care.

HSU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "81 AUTUMN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.