Men and women both experienced steep declines in employment at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but on average, the workforce for men is back to pre-pandemic levels in Michigan while women have left the workforce at disproportionate rates.
The pandemic’s negative effect on working women is amplified for working mothers, especially for women of color, according to a state Women in the Michigan Workforce report released at the end of March.
“Traditionally we have been facing this issue for a long time, it’s just the pandemic that is pushing it to the forefront,” said Blanca Fauble, chief development officer for the nonprofit Michigan Women Forward. “It’s always been there, it’s just now that it’s been uncovered further.”
Part of the problem is that more women than men are in low wage jobs. Because of the lack of workplace protections that lower wage jobs tend to have, employees in these roles were the most at risk for losing their jobs for longer periods of time during the pandemic.
According to 2018 data from the Brookings Institution, close to half of all working women in the country — 46 percent, or 28 million — worked in jobs that paid low wages averaging $10.93 an hour, while 37 percent of all working men earn low wages. These percentages are even higher for Black and Latina women in the workforce, of which 54 percent and 64 percent, respectively, are low wage earners.
“(The pandemic) has opened our eyes to a lot of different things,” Fauble said. “From equity and racial issues to childcare, it’s just all brought it to the forefront.”
Between February and December 2020, roughly 136,000 women left Michigan’s labor force, resulting in a 5.8-percent decline, according to the Women in the Michigan Workforce report issued by the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget. For men, the labor force is back to pre-pandemic rates and was up by 18,000 workers during the same period, for a 0.7-percent increase.
To address some of these disparities, Michigan Women Forward gave out grants to nearly 200 women and minority-owned businesses across the state in 2020 to try to ease some of the financial burden caused by COVID-19.
“We deal with a lot of entrepreneurs and see a lot of the impact the pandemic has had on a lot of them,” Fauble said. “For a lot of women that we work with, because they are the caretakers of the children and are trying to run a business, it is harder. A lot of the time these women are single parents, so it’s a double impact. They need to run their business to survive the pandemic and feed their families and help their employees as well.”
Workforce inequities by gender and race cause some of the wage and workforce discrepancies that have been highlighted by the pandemic, experts say. But social norms, such as most women still serving as the primary caretaker of their children, offer another reason for women not returning to the workforce at the same rate as men.
Parenting in a pandemic
More than 17 percent,or 10 million, of all working women across the U.S. rely on childcare and schools to keep their children safe while they work, according to the Brookings Institution. The lack of in-person schooling, coupled with childcare being shut down last year under COVID-19 precautions, caused a complete upending of the workforce that affected women the most.
The first month of the pandemic was especially awful, said Megan Feenstra Wall, architect at Mathison | Mathison Architects in Grand Rapids. She also serves as the president of American Institute of Architects’ Grand Rapids chapter. Feenstra Wall and her husband both have full-time jobs but also had to teach their children in kindergarten and first grade at home when schools shut down.
“Things were working for me (before the pandemic) because I had these systems in place that were set up to make this all work. But suddenly those went away and there were overlapping deadlines, 50-60 hour work weeks while also trying to school our children and then extra things like wiping down groceries,” she said.
The duties were shared with her husband, but Feenstra Wall knows of “more than one” woman in architecture outside of her firm that stopped taking on new work when the pandemic started because she was expected to help a child with virtual school.
“I don’t have any clue how you would do this if you were a single mother. I just don’t know, and I feel for the women who are doing this alone,” Feenstra Wall said. “There are so many talented and driven women coming up in the (architectural) profession right now in West Michigan and I know them and am excited about what’s coming. I haven’t heard of them leaving the profession or going part-time, but I worry we’re going to lose some of those gains.”
When Alita Kelly founded Southeast Market in Grand Rapids — which opened in January 2021 — she and her co-founder, Khara DeWit, both knew firsthand about the extra hardships the pandemic has caused for women and mothers, especially of color.
“My daughter is still in remote (schooling),” Kelly said. “It’s been a year since she’s been at home for school and we’ve been building the business this entire time. It’s such a hard time psychologically for them being estranged from other children, and that translates to me not being able to hold all of the balls for the business.”
Because Southeast Market’s priority and mission is to work with vendors who are Black, brown, Indigenous, local and women-led, Kelly sees it as a growing concern among many of her vendors as well.
“I’ve seen a mom’s goal for expanding into farming having to take a backseat because she has to care for the children in a way she wasn’t really expecting before the pandemic,” Kelly said.
Kelly said she has seen resiliency in her vendors despite the pandemic, but being able to understand their experiences on a personal level is crucial in knowing how to support them when they need it.
“I definitely feel like we make space for ourselves, and when we’re aware of challenges other mothers are facing, we work with them,” Kelly said. “There needs to be that type of heart in company culture. If you have mothers making decisions that are at the top in a company, that will be reflected in a company’s policies.”
Kelly says customers may at times feel the market’s service is lacking in certain ways or that they are providing services in unconventional ways. She tries to share that she and DeWit are teachers, mothers, homemakers and business owners all at once.
“It always comes back to representation and diversity,” Kelly said. “We were able to build this business with the lens of being mothers, women and people of color, and you can feel that in every aspect of our business. I’m so grateful to have that culture be the foundation of the market.”