COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Women Remains a Barrier to Economic Recovery


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The arrival of the most optimistic of seasons – spring – and the accelerating rate of vaccinations across the adult population are offering hope that economic recovery may also be within sight.  Recent data suggest, however, that if we fail to adequately address the impact over this past year on women in the workforce, economic recovery may remain elusive.

In Connecticut, the nonprofit Permanent Commission on the Status of Women reported last month that 26% of women in the state were furloughed or lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic and 68% reported that their educational progress had been negatively impacted.  Nationwide, women have lost more than 12 million jobs, triggering what many have dubbed a “she-cession” because of the disproportionate employment losses for women.

One year later, only 55 percent of those jobs have recovered, meaning 5.4 million jobs still have not returned. By comparison, men have lost 4.4 million jobs during the same time period, despite comprising a greater percentage of the U.S. workforce. Compounding the current economic challenge facing women across the nation, nearly 2 in 5 unemployed women, ages 20 and older, have been out of work for six months or longer.

Many women have also left the workforce to care for family members and support the educational needs of school-aged children. The PCSW report found that 66% of those with dependent children experienced an impairment of their ability to work due to a lack of childcare or children in remote school, and 16% reported that their career advancement had been impaired.  Even women on the frontlines, those who arguably have the best job security, in critical industries like healthcare, have been forced to leave their jobs due to the lack of available childcare.

For women of color, COVID-19’s impact has magnified workforce and career challenges that existed before the pandemic. And now, they are the ones feeling the deepest economic pain. Latinas were particularly hard hit by the economic ramifications of COVID-19, having experienced unemployment rates in excess of 20 percent. Many women of color have managed the stress and health risks of providing for their families while serving in jobs deemed essential, and have also dealt with higher rates of unemployment, reduced work hours, pay cuts and pay gaps.

According to Essential Equity, a report issued earlier this year in Connecticut by a nonprofit coalition and the Connecticut Data Collaborative, women surpassed men in unemployment claims for the first time in the state’s history, and women of color accounted for over 1 in 3 initial (36%) and nearly half (43%) of the continued unemployment claims filed by women during the pandemic. 

Now more than ever, women look to higher education models that fit into their busy lives and allow them to upskill or reskill during the economic recovery phase of the pandemic. While overall postsecondary enrollments declined 2.5 percent nationally in fall 2020, increases in female college enrollment has resulted in a nearly 10 percent growth rate in online learning. Not only is accredited, online higher education gaining larger widespread acceptance across the nation, research shows the structure of online education is more advantageous to women.

Competency-based education, for example, measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time or “hours” spent in a classroom. With customized support and mentorship, each student progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material. Utilizing this model, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives.

This innovative approach directly benefits students at Western Governors University (WGU), the pioneer of the model.  WGU’s proven design provides a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery, at a low cost, with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed or continue to care for their family while earning a degree.

As we chart a path forward from a world-changing pandemic and look to spur an economic recovery that reaches all corners of Connecticut, we must never lose sight of our responsibility to provide the access to higher education that women need to break down barriers, reach new heights in their careers and explore an ever-expanding array of career opportunities.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that currently serves more than 800 students in Connecticut, and has 1,300 alumni in the state.