Oct. 8, 2020

Can one recession undo years of progress?

By the end of April of this year, women’s job losses had erased a decade of employment gains...in a matter of months. The numbers for people of color are no less disheartening. 

But why? How did we end up in a recession so deeply skewed against already marginalized groups? Let’s figure it out with Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

If you’re wondering 1) how we created an economic system capable of discrimination 2) why marginalized groups are suffering most right now and 3) what this all means for efforts to shrink gender and racial pay gaps...listen to this episode. 

Want to keep up with Kinsey over email? Sign up here: businesscasual.fm/signup.


Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:09] Hey there, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual. It's your host, Kinsey Grant, and I would love it if you could pop into your podcast app and leave us a review. Nice to be nice, but honest is best. Thanks a million. Now, it is time to get real about the economy in three, two, one. Let's get into it. [sound of a ding]

Kinsey [00:00:28] So last time on the show, I spoke with Eduardo Porter about the ways this recession is different from any other in memory. There is, of course, the fact that it was almost self-imposed following the global health crisis instead of the byproduct of nefarious financial tools. But it's also particularly unique in the ways it's impacting certain groups of people. 

Kinsey [00:00:48] We got started understanding that the last time around, and we focused on people of color and young workers and people in the service economy, all of whom are facing an outsized impact in this economic downswing this time around. Eduardo brought up another cohort that deserves a deep dive too—women. By the end of April of this year, a women's job losses had erased a decade of employment gains in a matter of months. So some people are calling this a "shecession." 

Kinsey [00:01:14] But understanding how women are disproportionately left out to dry in this recession also helps us understand how our economy has evolved in such a way that makes that possible. So, let's get started in comprehending how this economic moment is hamstringing women more than men, and women of color more than just about anyone. To help us do that, I am excited to welcome to the show, Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Nicole, welcome to Business Casual. 

Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research [00:01:41] Hey, Kinsey. Nice to be here. Thank you for inviting me so that I can talk about women and the economy and COVID. 

Kinsey [00:01:50] Yeah, it's a lot to talk about. I mean, we think about women, the economy, and COVID—there's certainly going to be a lot to unpack. And we're lucky to have you today. When we started thinking about pitching this episode and this idea, the term that was often tossed around was "shecession." That this is a shecession. [chuckles] And when we Google "shecession," your name is really the only one that pops up. You are out there on the forefront of this issue, talking to the most important outlets, the most important people about it. So we're lucky to have you here and to get your perspective. 

Kinsey [00:02:18] Before we get started here, I want to say this: recessions suck. Losing your job sucks. Going through this sucks. And we're going to talk about who it sucks [laughs] statistically most for. But I want to just preface all of this by saying that we're going to talk about the recovery too. We're going to talk about efforts to get better, to do better, to implement better policy as well. So, what makes this recession different? 

Nicole [00:02:39] So this recession is different, especially for women, because women have lost the majority of jobs over the last few months. And the reason why women have lost the biggest share, a larger share of jobs, is because they are more likely to be employed in the sectors that have been most impacted. So like the service sector, health, education, leisure, and hospitality, those sectors are dominated by women. And so when stay-at-home orders were implemented, all the restaurants closed down, all of the theaters, you know, everything shut down. And so that means that women lost jobs. 

Kinsey [00:03:19] Right. And we'll talk about why those sectors were so dominated by women and why they played such an enormous role in our economy in general shortly. But one of the big questions, when we think about a recession impacting women more than men, do most recessions impact men more than women? Why does this feel so different? 

Nicole [00:03:36] So the reason why it feels so different is because of what I just said about the number of women working in the service sector. But in 2008, for example, the recession mostly impacted men. So it was in production and manufacturing. Women are not in those fields or those sectors. So we weren't hit in the same way. 

Nicole [00:03:54] But this time around, for the first time in, you know, a decade or more, women have been disproportionately hit. And it sucks because not only are the women in the service sector, but those jobs are lower-paying jobs and jobs where you have to go out to work in order to get paid. And so if you have a family or you have caretaking responsibilities, it makes it really hard for you to get back to work. 

Kinsey [00:04:21] Right. And I think for women especially, there is this sort of disproportionate effect in terms of labor outside just your nine-to-five job. Even if you do still keep that job, so often the more unpaid labor, the household labor, the childcare and now being a home school teacher as well, disproportionately falls on women too, right? 

Nicole [00:04:41] Yeah. At this moment, women are doing double duty. So in general, women spend about 30% more time on household chores and unpaid labor than their male counterparts. And unfortunately for younger women, it's even higher, and it starts at about 15 for women we notice the gap. And so with the recession and schools and daycares being closed, women still have that 30%, but it's even more time, and so it feels like double double duty for a lot of women. 

Kinsey [00:05:11] So how did our economy get to the point at which women are dominating these service industries, these hospitality industries? We've noticed this evolution in our economy in recent decades of a pivot toward a more service-oriented economy. But how did women come to represent such a large share of the employees working within those sectors? 

Nicole [00:05:33] The term for it is labor segmentation. So women are segmented into certain careers or certain careers are considered female-oriented. So education, nursing, social service, service in general. And so that's where we are. And because of, we have to be honest here, sexism [chuckles] and discrimination, women have, for a long time, were cut out of those top spots. 

Nicole [00:05:59] We weren't in CEO positions. We were the administrative assistant. And so that's why there's a disproportionate number of women who are employed in the service sector. And women of color, Latina and Black women, because of racism and sexism, are also overrepresented in the service sector. 

Kinsey [00:06:18] Yeah. Just enormous headwinds to me to achieving this sort of maybe utopian ideal of what the labor market should look like, at least in the United States. We're so far off from that. And the last six months, I think, have really been, I hope, for people a wakeup call that this is a pretty unique moment in our collective history for a lot of reasons. 

Kinsey [00:06:35] But, you think about women, we're three times more likely than men to have left their jobs because of childcare issues during the pandemic. These are just a couple of stats I pulled with a quick Google. [chuckles] From February to May, 11 1/2 million women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men. By the end of April, women's job losses had erased a decade of employment gains. A decade of employment gains is crazy within the first couple of months of this pandemic striking. 

Nicole [00:06:59] Yeah. You know, at the beginning of the year, like in January, we were writing about like, oh, women are 51% of the labor market. And it was a moment for celebration because we had hit this milestone. But what I knew is that I didn't want to get too comfortable because I knew that underneath it, it wasn't really solid. 

Nicole [00:07:18] And, of course, the pandemic hits and we realize those gains were wiped out in literally a few weeks. And then when we think about like, oh, what's it going to take to get women back into the labor market or the workforce? It's going to take childcare. It's going to take all these other things. So it's going to take us a while to get back to where we were beginning of the year. 

Kinsey [00:07:40] Yeah. It really laid bare a lot of these issues. And I think it's also worth pointing out the impact of underemployment, especially for women and for people of color. It's not that we're less smart or we are less capable or less qualified in a lot of cases. It's just that the system [chuckles] has been created in such a way that underemployment is super-prevalent within the labor market that's not just white men. 

Nicole [00:08:03] Underemployment and underpay. So underemployment is an issue for a lot of women, but not being paid for value or worth in the workplace is also a problem. And so when you think about COVID, you don't think about the pay gap every day. Like, you just sort of say, OK, this is what I earn and this is what I have to spend. 

Nicole [00:08:25] But in times like this, or an economic downturn or recession, that's less money you have to ride out the storm. If you lose your job, you don't have the savings. You don't have enough money to feel secure so that, like, six months from now, you're OK. And so that's the consequence of a pay gap that kind of goes unrecognized for most women, including myself. 

Kinsey [00:08:48] Yeah, it is so strange that we recognize that these gaps exist. Gender pay gap, racial pay gap. And you're right, we don't think about it every day. We just go about our lives and assume that everybody knows these things happen and nobody is really doing that much about it. And we'll get to that. But one big point I want to touch on before we do get into the gaps and what we do to address them. I'm interested to hear your perspective on the concept of leaving the workforce versus losing your job within the workforce. 

Kinsey [00:09:16] I think that this, in this specific recession, might be something worth digging into. We can quantify exactly how many people filed for unemployment, were left unemployed in certain months at a time. But, I have to wonder about the people who voluntarily had to leave their jobs. When you think of a dual-income household, it makes sense for the person who is making less money to be the one who leaves the job to take care of children or to take care of elderly parents in the household or to do what needs to be done. 

Kinsey [00:09:43] This unpaid labor within the home that often is women because of this gender pay gap we were just talking about. Is that a concern right now in this recession? 

Nicole [00:09:53] So, Kinsey, that's like the best question I've been asked all day. [Kinsey laughs] And I've been doing stuff all day. We shed immediately, at the start of recession, 11 million jobs women lost. But, that doesn't take into account women who left the workforce because of childcare issues. Or as a family, people make the decision, you earn less, so it makes more sense for you to off-ramp to take care of children or other caretaking responsibilities. 

Nicole [00:10:26] But also, I just want to point out that it's also the cultural and societal expectation that if anybody is going to off-ramp, it's going to be a woman to take care of children. And so it's an unfair burden because, let me just say that when women off-ramp, it hurts their future earnings, their career mobility, and actually, they don't feel good about it. Like emotionally, it's they don't feel good about having to make that choice that we're not asking men to make in the same way. 

Kinsey [00:10:59] Let's talk about this bounceback idea—that if you leave your job for any extended period of time, you do plan on going back. What is the process like for women or for marginalized groups or people of color in trying to regain where they were, their footing on that corporate ladder? Is it the same for everybody or is it different based on what you look like? 

Nicole [00:11:20] Oh, it's different based on who you are and what sector you work in. I was talking to a relative of mine most recently, and she lost her job. She'd been working in food service in Las Vegas for about 20 years. She has a young son, and it's gonna be harder for her to reenter the workforce just simply because there are no jobs. So even if she wants to. 

Nicole [00:11:44] And then what kind of job will it be? Will she have to take a few steps back? She had 20 years of seniority in her other job. Will she have to start at the bottom again with decreased wages? That's a real significant challenge. For women, who, like me—I can work remotely. I have a bit of job security. When different women off-ramp, there are different kinds of consequences. And sometimes it's harder to get back into the, you know, reenter the workforce. 

Nicole [00:12:16] And not least, childcare being one of those issues that prevent women who, from off-ramping, from being able to enter and stay there. And thinking about the range of workers, women workers, from service sector to corporate women, were facing some of the same challenges in terms of sustaining employment and reentering the workforce. And I think before the pandemic, we didn't really connect the dots. 

Kinsey [00:12:42] Nicole, one really interesting aspect you bring up in this conversation is that even if we're ready to go back to work, sometimes those jobs won't be there. Our economy will be meaningfully changed by this pandemic. We've seen time and again that people who thought they were just going to be furloughed actually completely lost a job. We are shifting the ways that we go about our lives and that, in turn, will change our economy and the way that our economy functions. 

Kinsey [00:13:05] I think this is especially important given just how much of a services-based economy we've become. The industries like hospitality and services to which you were just referring have traditionally already been underpaid, undervalued parts of our economy. More female essential workers there than male. But they also just might not exist in the same way that they did before. We're going to see fewer restaurants. We're going to see fewer hair salons and what have you. 

Nicole [00:13:30] Yeah, absolutely. And to your retail stores. So retail was already struggling before the pandemic, and it's accelerated their demise. Many retail stores, even in my own neighborhoods and communities, you know, you just look all across cities and restaurants, bars—they've all been closed for good. And these are restaurants where I used to go with my friends and we'd have brunch. Those are all gone. 

Nicole [00:13:57] And most meaningful, though, is that all those jobs are gone. Thousands and thousands of jobs have disappeared for good. And I want to put this in perspective—that those jobs are not coming back in the same way. Even if a restaurant is able to regroup and get back to business, it's going to take time. 

Nicole [00:14:17] So for women, what that might mean, especially for women who work in the service sector, it might mean reskilling, going back to school, doing some other options. But again, if you have children, it makes it that much harder to really think about. Well, what do I want to do? What's my next step? 

Kinsey [00:14:37] Yeah, absolutely. And I just think sometimes we get so caught up in the fact that this is an unprecedented time and everybody wants to cancel 2020. But this is still—life is still going on for people. We're now six months into this. This doesn't go away for so many people, no matter how much we feel like our lives are starting to get some sense of normalcy. For a lot of families in America, that's simply not happening. 

Kinsey [00:15:00] So, Nicole, we are going to get into exactly what it is that we can do to make sure that women can reenter the workforce and that we do have a more equitable distribution of labor within the United States. But first, a short break to hear from our partner. —

Kinsey [00:15:15] And now back to the conversation with Dr. C. Nicole Mason. Nicole, we were just speaking about the sort of permanent implications on our labor force, and our economy in general, that this moment is going to have, what it means for the future of our labor force, and for the future of hiring and employment in general. What can we do to make sure that when we do actually get back to, like you said, going to brunch and seeing our school friends, what can we do to make sure that when we reach that point, the right people are given the right resources to reenter the workforce, even if it looks meaningfully different than it does today? 

Nicole [00:15:51] So immediately, I think the best thing that anyone can do in this moment is to vote, because this is a really important election year, not just not just at the federal level, but also at the state level as well. There are more than 500 women who have filed to run for office this year. And so those women will be on the ballot. And we know that when women are elected to office, they leave with their values, and they put in place policies that protect families. And so that's the first thing I think we can all do. I'm not want to tell you how to vote, but —

Kinsey [00:16:26] Just do it. [laughs] Yeah. 

Nicole [00:16:27] Exercising that right in this moment is really critically important. And the other thing I would say is just finding out what's going on. Like, the policies. There's so many, like the Cares Act, the Heroes Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act—it all sounds like jargon, and like, oh, what does that mean? Or how does that really impact me? But all these things do really impact us. And I know I sound like a cliche. I'm a political scientist and this is what I do for a living. I feel very grateful. But in this moment, it will make the difference, especially for families. Getting out on the front lines is what will make a difference. 

Kinsey [00:17:10] Yeah. It's so—interesting maybe isn't the [laughs] perfect word for this moment in history, but it's such an interesting time that all this is happening during an election year. Probably the most meaningful election of my lifetime, certainly. And it's just crazy to think that all of this is coming to a head at one time and we have to not bury our heads in the sand. We have to actually do something about it. And to your point, be informed and look up what these acronyms mean, and understand what they mean in the broader context of the economy. 

Kinsey [00:17:38] With that said, Nicole, I'm curious if there's any lessons that we can draw from the last recession. Obviously, the world was a very different place in 2008, 2009. But, with the recovery from that recession that, of course, took years [chuckles] to pull off, what can we learn as we head into what hopefully is a recovery from this recession in the coming months and years? 

Nicole [00:17:59] So 2008, it impacted men, so it's a manufacturing and production. 2020, it's different. It's impacting women. And so there are a lot of issues that we need to pay attention to that were not there in 2008. So like issues of childcare, who's responsible for caregiving, making sure the schools are open so that women can go back to work. So we have to make sure those things are present in this recovery. 

Nicole [00:18:26] So we've been talking about it as a gender, a global recovery, making sure that the needs of women are front and center because they've been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And we know that women of color have been hurt worse. So making sure that there are programs that are targeted to make sure that we will have an even recovery. 

Kinsey [00:18:51] Yeah. I want to talk about some of these more systemic barriers to ensuring these policies make it to the right people and help the right people. Before we do that, a quick break to hear from our sponsor. —

Kinsey [00:19:05] And now back to the conversation with Dr. C. Nicole Mason. Nicole, one really interesting thing that you have been pretty vocal about is the fact that the system, as it exists today, the sort of labor system in general in the United States, wasn't created with women in mind. [chuckles] That it was created with a certain expectation of who would be doing the work. And it's very antiquated and very outdated with the expectation that someone can be on all the time, is available to do what you need to be done whenever because someone else is at home taking care of the children, or doing what needed to be done, or tending to the farm, what have you. Explain a little bit more why you view the system in this way. 

Nicole [00:19:41] The truth of the matter is, is that the pandemic has really exposed our system as broken. And I think women have come to realize that it's not our fault that this isn't working. It was never made for us. This workplace model where you work, like, 60 hours a week, you travel, you have these work meetings, and everything else. Taking care of a family or your children is sort of secondary, or you're expected to do both and not complain about either. It doesn't work. 

Nicole [00:20:14] And one of the things I have been saying is that women are half the workforce, literally half. But there has been no major moves to make sure that we're supported and accommodated in the workforce. At this point, there should be daycares at the bottom of businesses. [laughs] Or there should be all these things happening for women that just haven't happened because it's a very male — 

Kinsey [00:20:42] Right. 

Nicole [00:20:42] Understanding of the workforce and the workplace. But, you know what? It's changing because we are speaking up. I think the pandemic—we're saying this is enough. We have to start having these conversations. And so, I'm just hoping that businesses will start to do better, have better practices for women, but also that women also raise their voices and say, we're just not going to do this anymore. Like, we're on strike. [laughs] I don't know. 

Nicole [00:21:12] Imagine. [laughter] Fear just washes over everybody listening. [Nicole laughs] Nicole, is your hope here that there would be some sort of federal mandate for things like paid family leave or childcare within businesses? What's the end goal? We vote as many women as we can into office and as many people of color into office. What are the best-case scenarios of what they do? 

Nicole [00:21:34] Oh, my goodness. So I keep telling [indistinct] and I keep telling people. I said, you know, let me just tell you something. If we win the House, the Senate, and the presidency, you better not tell me anything about policies that we can't pass. Because I'm expecting everything. Universal healthcare, economic impact payments, a great new social safety net, universal childcare. I want all of those things because those are all the things that families and working women deserve. If we don't get that out, I'll just take universal childcare and some paid sick leave [laughs] at the federal level. You know, I'll take those two things and some good healthcare. So —

Kinsey [00:22:13] Yeah. 

Nicole [00:22:13] I'll take those three things as a consolation prize for not winning everything. 

Kinsey [00:22:19] Nicole, I'm sure you get this question a lot, though, but how do we pay for these programs? 

Nicole [00:22:23] So, that's a really good question. And I always say we have the money. We just have to lead with our values. So there are a lot of different ways. Let me just tell you something. We're one of the only developed countries that doesn't have a really strong childcare infrastructure. In Sweden, women don't pay more than a few hundred dollars for care regardless of their income and the child's age. 

Nicole [00:22:50] That sounds like crazy-making. They're like, oh, they'll raise my taxes. We can think about childcare as a public good because it is a public good, because it allows the economy to thrive, for women to be most productive in the workforce. And so we just have to lead with our values and put our money where our values are. And right now, we're just not. 

Kinsey [00:23:13] Right. So what about the companies, these corporations? We kind of talked about the government. I would say the next [laughs] big level that we should discuss is the corporation level. What can companies be doing to ensure that the recovery looks the way it should for all of these different groups of people—for women, for people of color, etc.? 

Nicole [00:23:30] So I think businesses are also taking a hard look at themselves. This is a moment of reflection and also responsiveness to really think about how do we lead with integrity and with our values. And that one where we can demonstrate that we value our employees, especially, working women. And some companies are further along than others. But I do think now is the time to really think about creating a workplace and a workforce that is respectful of the skills and talents that women bring to the table and also who they are outside of work. And I don't think we've done that in any real serious way. 

Kinsey [00:24:08] Yeah. What about individuals. On the individual level, go a level deeper? [laughs] What can the people who are listening to this do other than make sure you're registered to vote and actually exercise your right to vote? What should we be doing in our day-to-day lives when it's not Election Day to ensure that this is an equitable workforce for everybody? 

Nicole [00:24:27] I think, have a conversation, spark a conversation in your workplace. Like, why don't we have this? What about pay equity at our, you know, in our offices? Is there pay transparency? Do we know who's making what? Spark those conversations. Form a union, by the way. In the nonprofit sector, that's all the rage. [laughs] It's not all the rage. But there are a lot of unions being formed just because it just gives workers a little bit more power. There's a little bit more transparency. In private corporations, that's a bit harder. 

Nicole [00:25:02] But having the conversations around issues like pay equity, what is an equitable workplace really look like for women and people of color? Having those conversations and not just stopping the conversation, but like, OK, well, what are we going to do about it? And working proactively with your company or corporation to make those changes I think is really critically important. I've been in my role as CEO for about a year now, and I came in really looking forward to making changes. But I have to say it was like employees, junior staffers who said, you know, let's do this. You know, pay transparency. Let's talk about pay equity in our organization. And we do the work around pay equity. And I rose to meet the challenge. 

Nicole [00:25:49] And we now provide for women, mothers—a $4,000 childcare subsidy for mothers to be able to provide care. And that's not just during COVID. It's a new permanent policy. And so I think that's how businesses can lead. 

Kinsey [00:26:08] Yeah, certainly things to be done. And I think if we have learned anything from the tech sector [chuckles] in the last couple of years, it's that employee activism can work and does often work. What about men specifically? A lot of men listening to this podcast. What can they be doing to make sure that things work out the way that they should? 

Nicole [00:26:26] Men can do better. [laughs] Men can step up and be—I don't want to use the word allies, that just sounds so watered down—but they have to be on the front lines as well. By the way, men are part of families. Frankly, if your partner is not earning enough money because of the pay gap or discrimination, that's less money you have coming into your household to build your family. So these are not issues that only impact women. These issues impact men and the women that they love—people that they love. So it's an issue that we should all be on the front lines for. 

Kinsey [00:27:05] Yeah. And even if you're not a member—if you're an unmarried single man, like you're producer Josh, or a producer of the show, [Nicole laughs] he's still part of the economy. And the economy suffers when people aren't empowered to work to their full potential and to be paid to their full potential. Nicole, thank you so, so much for coming on Business Casual, offering that incredible insight, walking us through certainly a nuanced problem in a way that made a lot of sense. I really, really appreciate you taking the time. 

Nicole [00:27:32] Thank you so much, Kinsey. I really appreciate it. And thanks for having me on. 

Kinsey [00:27:43] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. Maybe you've heard it already, but I'll say it one more time to echo Nicole in this episode you just listened to. Go vote. And if you're already registered and ready to vote on November 3rd, go check out Brew Votes 2020. It was a cross-team effort spearheaded by our Brew team members Sasha and Alessandra. You can check your registration status. Get a ton of great resources and even earn some stickers. Head on over to vote.morningbrew.com. That's vote.morningbrew.com to check out Brew Votes 2020. And I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]