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Pandemic Sets Back Women's Progress In Workforce


We're going to go to the other major crisis the country continues to face, which is the coronavirus pandemic and the economic destruction resulting from it. And here, we're going to focus on the impact on women. To put it bluntly, it has been devastating.

More than 2 million women left the labor force in 2020. Women are now at the lowest workforce participation level since 1988. Job losses in female-dominated industries like hospitality have forced many women out of work, and others, faced with the difficulty of balancing child care with paid work, have quit. And it has now become clear that Black and Latina women have been especially hard-hit. They now face far higher unemployment rates than white women.

We wanted to talk more about what the long-term impact of these trends could be and what might make a difference, so we've called a name you know well here at NPR, Hanna Rosin. She previously co-hosted NPR's Invisibilia and is the author of the book, "The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women." She recently wrote a piece for New York magazine, where she is now editorial director for audio, called "The End Of The End Of Men," where she points out where her thesis fell short.

Hanna Rosin, welcome back. It's good to hear from you.

HANNA ROSIN: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us are Jamila Michener, associate professor of government at Cornell University, and Margaret Brower, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. They recently co-authored an article in The Washington Post arguing that policies designed for all women don't necessarily help Latina and Black women. And they are both with us now as well.

Welcome, Professor Michener.

JAMILA MICHENER: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: And welcome, Margaret Brower.

MARGARET BROWER: Thank you. I'm also happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Hanna Rosin, I'm going to start with you and with how we got here. And we talk a lot about how sectors dominated by women have been particularly hard-hit, but is there more than that? I mean, I'm thinking of a line in your piece where you say, it's now painfully obvious that the mass entry of women into the workforce was rigged from the beginning. As briefly as you can, what did you mean by that?

ROSIN: We should have known it was coming. We basically set women up for failure. The mass entry of women into the workforce was not accompanied by some obvious things, like help in child care or help in balancing all these things that have fallen on women to balance without much cultural change or structural change. So it's almost like we were doing this high-wire act. And, you know, when I went back and read my book, "The End of Men," like, it was so optimistic and cheerful but also so precarious and, like, we can't do it without any help, without any change in policy, without any change in a culture's understanding of who is responsible for all of the caretaking.

MARTIN: And Black and Latina women have been disproportionately affected in a negative way. And, Margaret Brower, I'm going to ask you, why is that?

BROWER: I would say that the biggest reason is because they are concentrated in the industries of hospitality and services. But it's not just that these industries are laying off Black and Latina women. There haven't been important safety nets in these industries for workers, and so when Black and Latino women are concentrated in them, they don't have access to things like paid sick time or health insurance or flexible work schedules. So it's not just that they're getting laid off. It's also because COVID presents a set of difficulties that these jobs don't provide a good safeguard against.

MARTIN: Let's stay on the policy questions for a second. I was just fascinated by your research on how policies, however well-intended, don't cut the same way for everybody. For example, you say that minimum wage increases just do not help Black and Latina women as much as white women, for example, whereas health care and housing support or student loan debt relief would be more helpful.

Like, why doesn't - - these so-called race-neutral policies? Because that was clearly kind of part of the strategy of the Obama administration, for example. If they're intended to help the - sort of working class, they'll naturally help the most affected or most marginalized groups more. And you're saying that's just not true. So could each of you maybe just pick one thing to focus on and explain why it isn't necessarily as helpful and what might be better? Maybe, Ms. Brower, you want to start?

BROWER: Sure. And I think it's important to - we want to contextualize; I'll start with minimum wage - that we're not saying that minimum wage is not necessarily important for Black and Latina women. But we have to think about why they might not be benefiting from some of these policies at the state level due to how these policies are getting implemented. Like, for example, if Black and Latina women are concentrated in industries such as the service and hospitality industries, which rely on a sub-minimum wage, which requires cash tips, well, that's an extremely unreliable income. So during a pandemic, income from cash tips is going to be a rarity.

MICHENER: Yeah, I'll jump in here and say that it's absolutely true. A comprehensive perspective here is key. And what we know even prior to this pandemic is that we were facing an eviction crisis before the pandemic, and it was accelerated and exacerbated by the pandemic. And what we also knew prior to the pandemic was that that crisis disproportionately fell on the shoulders of specifically Black women.

We absolutely need to take action when it comes to housing, whether it's thinking about how we're going to deal with the debt that women are racking up as they navigate this pandemic, you know, in relation to their landlords and to their housing, what to do about evictions. Investing in those kinds of policies will absolutely help everyone, right? It will help white women. It will help white men. It will help Black men but will disproportionately help Black women because their suffering is disproportionate.

And so that's one policy arena where I think that there are - it's rife with opportunities for having racially equitable policy that doesn't - that's not targeted in the sense that it's only helping one group but is focused in the sense that it's zeroing in on the people who are most vulnerable and most in need.

MARTIN: So I want to come back to that whole question of how you get to those policies. But then I want to go back to Hanna Rosin. And in your article, you also pushed back against the idea that it just makes intuitive sense for a woman to be the one to quit her job and stay at home. And I've got to tell you that, you know, over the course of this whole experience here, you know, we've been checking in with a number of women, and in each case, who've made the decision to quit - in each case, I've not met - I've not found one where the husband even considered quitting.

But could that pressure cut both ways, though? I mean, could it be that women would feel less stigmatized...


MARTIN: ...If they quit because of child care and that it wasn't that men might want to - feel like, you know what? I'd be better at this, but I will face such a stigma in getting back into the labor force that - you know, could it be that?

ROSIN: Yes, it is that. Men do - that is absolutely fair. Men absolutely do face more stigma, both, I think, culturally and economically. There's lots of research that shows that men are punished more severely when they do things that are considered traditional maternal caretaking. So this is, like, a big, big job that we have to do as a culture. But also, like, listening to all of us talk and talk calmly about what needs to be done, it does - like, it - like, a little anger rises in me. It all seems so obvious.

Like, women have been in the workforce for, you know, 40-some years, the entrance of women into the workforce in mass numbers, so that women are now about half of the American workforce. And we kind of, like, closed our eyes and pretended it wasn't happening. I mean, about a quarter of women are single mothers. Like, what did - how do we think it's all going to hold together? We're just pretending it's not true and structuring our economy and our culture, like, based on some fictional 1950s idea of male breadwinner, woman stays at home. It's not at all our economic reality. It's, like, our lives have changed so much, and our policies around work have changed so little. It just - it's unfair.

MARTIN: And, you know, to the whole question of it's not just the policy, it's the feelings that change evokes - I mean, you know, as we said, part of the Obama administration's economic theory was that policies aimed at working people help everybody. And I'm just going to say that part of that was aimed at staving off the kind of racialized backlash that we have seen. I mean, you say in your piece, one of the reasons some states refused to expand Medicare was that they didn't want people that they - their voters considered undeserving to have it.

So since we know that this is true, I take your point that, you know, these policies would help everybody. But if part of the push for prioritizing certain policies is that they particularly help certain people, I mean, how do you even have that conversation without stoking exactly the kind of backlash that we have seen when it wasn't even asserted publicly, even though we all know it's true?

MICHENER: We might not say the quiet part about race out loud, but everybody already knows it. And so instead of trying to de-racialize - and I think unsuccessfully, often - in many ways, as tricky as it is politically, I think you lean into this fact, and you build power based on it. You build coalitions around the goal of racial equity. We've seen - we saw in 2020 how you can build power, you can build support, you can build movement around people who are willing to stand for racial equity, right? And when you do that, you can get policies that help everyone. So we still get that goal of helping everyone, but we don't have to leave behind people of color as a sacrifice in order to pretend that we're de-racializing our politics.

MARTIN: That was Jamila Michener, an associate professor of government at Cornell University. We also heard from Margaret Brower, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, and journalist Hanna Rosin, author of "The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women."

Thank you all so much for talking with us. As I said, we've only just scratched the surface. It's an important conversation. Thanks for being with us.

ROSIN: Thank you so much.

MICHENER: Thank you.

BROWER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN HILL SONG, "DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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